Summary of “Let us Discuss RiskComm” with Prof VS Ramamurthy

“Let us Discuss RiskComm”

There is no aspect of human life that is untouched by science and technology in some form or another. High technology products and services are no longer the luxuries of the rich. Although the public perceives science as the provider of the solutions to enhance the quality of life, novel technologies are not always welcomed by the public. There is a need to focus on arriving at the methodologies of creating awareness among the public. This would enable absorbing the rapidly developing technologies and make informed decisions. Currently at NIAS, research being undertaken in the domain of Science and Risk Communication. As a part of creating a platform for engaging students, researchers in the domains of Science and Risk Communication and people, a discussion forum is being started.

The first in series is the interaction with Prof VS Ramamurhty.  
Prof VS Ramamurthy is Emeritus Professor at NIAS and former Director NIAS. Prof Ramamurthy is an eminent nuclear scientist with a broad range of contributions from basic research to science administration. Prof Ramamurthy was actively associated in science promotion in India as Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Science & Technology (DST), New Delhi. One of the domains is very passionate about is “Science and Risk Communication” and he is mentoring many researchers who are working in this domain. It is appropriate that we start “Discuss RiskComm” series with him. 

The meeting was chaired by, Prof M. Sai Baba, Shri TV Raman Pai Chair Professor, NIAS, Bengaluru and with active participation of Siddharth Sinha and Nandha Gopan.  

A brief summary of the discussion is given below: 

We all may acknowledge that science and technology can find solutions to the problems faced by the society. However, various technologies are not accepted by people even though they are meant for social development. Therefore, it is necessary to focus on arrive at methodologies of creating awareness amongst the people regarding new technologies, especially related to novel technologies, in order to take informed decisions. 

Risk communication is a major challenge today, primarily because technology is frequently changing and also due to public ignorance. According to Oxford Dictionary, risk is basically the possibility of something bad happening at some time in the future. Doing absolutely nothing is also not a zero-risk option. 

The consequence of the risk is: 

  • Loss of life 
  • Loss of health 
  • Loss of livelihood 
  • Loss of reputation 
  • Corporate risk 

The perception of risk is highly individualistic and varies with person, place and time. The types of risk perceptions are: 

  • Familiar risk: risk related to everyday mundane practices such as violation of traffic rules, etc. 
  • Self-satisfying risk: Tobacco chewing, cigarette smoking, adventure sports 
  • Professional risk: A career in defence services, police services, fire services, etc. 
  • Commitment to a cause: Volunteer for disaster relief agencies and during pandemic times 
  • Simply dire needs: Surrogate mothers, organ donors, etc. 
  • Public risk: The number of risk bearers are large, anonymous and in general may or may not be a beneficiary

RISK COMMUNICATION depends primarily on personal experiences, perception of different people and trust. The combination of the mentioned factors makes risk communication highly complex. 

RISK ACCEPTANCE is mainly done using Cost-Benefit analysis. In some case, the cost or benefits may not be financial making the analysis difficult. Indecisions also has some cost associated with it, and therefore is not a zero-risk option. 

PUBLIC RISK depends on the number of risk bearers at large. The government agencies are always responsible for balancing the public costs, public good and public risk. However, the governments are constrained by public perception effecting the electoral requirements. Hence, communication of the public good and public risk become central to any policy making. 

A success story in Risk Communication: Campaign against passive smoking 

In the past smoking was promoted for commercial gains, but nowadays passive smoking is considered iniquitous. The public recognition about passive smoking as a health concern came three decades back and skew of steps were taken to restrict smoking in public places including legal actions against violators. Massive awareness campaigns were carried out such as printing pictorial consequences of consuming tobacco and cigarettes on the outer packaging. Now these steps are taken across the world to prevent passive smoking. 

Agitation against transgenic BT Brinjal 

The transgenic BT brinjals are synthesized by inserting crystal protein gene from the soil bacterium into the genome of brinjal cultivar. In 2009, it was approved for commercialization in India, but due to public outcry against its safety, the Indian government put a temporary moratorium on its release. After 10 years the moratorium is still not taken off, even after repeated assurance by specialist to the public and especially to the agitators.  

The agitators are the farmers who may be unaware of the nutritional benefits of BT brinjal, provoked by some local leader. This could be example where a technology become victim to uninformed public pressure on the government. It is difficult to educate the farmers about biotechnology, which is why they should believe and trust the scientists.  

There is no possibility of having consensus in matters of public perception. It is very unlikely that 1.3 billion people would accept such technology intervention without being properly informed. 

CHALLENGES AHEADEveryone in society should consider whether the country’s long-term goal are being compromised by agitations and protests to scientific developments. It can easily be said that the protection of public interest and decisive actions based on democratic norms is the responsibility of government. But in reality, the government cannot take only the opinion of majority and ignore the minority. The level of public awareness regarding highly technical issues is certainly not enough for public to make a logical opinion. The only option is to convey the risk and benefits to the public and therefore risk communication holds the key for sensible governance. There is no alternative than to strengthening the risk communication for the government to take meaningful decision, to take public interest in earnest and to optimize the available resources for governance. The responsibility of risk communication lies with everyone holding leadership position in all segments of the society including scientific, religious, political and administrative leaders. 

After Prof VS Ramamurthy gave his perspective, thee was active interaction with the participants.  

Questions & Answers

  1. How important is the role of social media for communicating risk? What are the effective ways of utilizing social media for risk communication? 

Reply: Social media is the only way of reaching the entire public, irrespective of majority or minority. With conventional media, you need to request for a platform to deliver your ideas, but social media has removed those boundaries. However, social media by itself has no value unless the leaders utilize it to reach out to public. 

  1. In NIAS Science and Society series of ‘Perception and acceptance of public risk’ you mentioned that “At the collective level, sociology and culture play a very important role in defining public risk acceptance”. Do you still believe the same? If so, why? 

Reply: Public perception of anything is influenced by sociology and culture. As an  example, the Indian entrepreneurs in silicon valley perform different than in  Bangalore is mostly because of sociology. The culture of failing to continuing a  company is taken more harshly in India, which is the cultural difference. Similarly,  the response to COVID-19 by various countries are different mostly because of  cultural difference. Cultural difference will play important part in risk  communication. 

  1. Since you mentioned sociology as important aspect for risk communication, then what are the major social or cultural factors which influence risk perception in India? How are we in India are different from rest about perceiving risk? 

Reply: Firstly, sociology and culture are all pervasive. Secondly, every country is different from rest of the world. Therefore, it is difficult to identify what in particular are the influencing factors, but it is essential to recognize that cultural differences exist.  

  1. In context of nuclear energy, how can we distance the industry from the shadow of past nuclear accidents, which has formed lasting opinion of nuclear risk among the public? 

Reply: It not possible to distance nuclear energy from past accidents. What we need to analyze is what are the different response of communities and countries related to the three major nuclear accidents. There is no nuclear technology with zero risk. What we are looking today is whether nuclear can effectively contribute to the energy mix for the country’s development.  

The current choices are either we choose to continue using conventional sources to produce energy and let the future generation suffer the consequences, or we choose a possible accident from nuclear power. That is not how we can analyze the risks. We should stop perceiving the risk of nuclear in isolation, but have to look at overall perspective. The effectiveness of renewables is still in question. The book on ‘Climate change and energy options for a sustainable future’ which has list of issues in favour and in against of energy sources. The young generation need to understand the facts and thereby make informed opinions about energy sources and sustainable development. 

Let Us Discuss RiskComm

Published by Siddharth Sinha

Nuclear engineer. Engaged in the domain of risk perception and communication towards Nuclear power plants in India

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