Decision-making in the twilight of uncertainty

26 November, 2013

Jaime Enoch

The theme of this year’s LWEC (Living with Environmental Change) conference was Decision-making in the age of uncertainty, an enigmatic title which promised and delivered a range of compelling talks.

The theme of this year’s LWEC (Living with Environmental Change) conference was Decision-making in the twilight of uncertainty, an enigmatic title which promised and delivered a range of compelling talks. While LWEC aims to provide scientific, evidence-informed perspectives to UK policymakers, many of the talks also had far-reaching implications for science for international development.

The “uncertain” issues under discussion are mostly big issues which don’t respect national borders. Speakers discussed Negative Emission Technologies (NETs), which are arguably the only means of achieving the net-zero emissions needed in the second half of the 21st century to stave off the catastrophic climate change envisioned in IPCC scenarios. However, researchers still aren’t certain about how NETs will work and the unintended risks they may generate. The cutting-edge research into NETs contrasts with the current orthodoxy of mitigation, illustrating the frequent lack of alignment between research and policy priorities. And a further uncertainty – how would developments in such technology be communicated to a global audience, whose engagement would be needed for NETs to have a meaningful impact? Present negotiations at the UN Climate talks show that consensus is hard to achieve over much less radical strategies.

What was most refreshing was to see “uncertainty” in science recognised as a concept which scientists have to be prepared to acknowledge and internalise, especially when scientific evidence is being employed in situations of low probability but high impact, such as pandemics or extreme weather. As the REF beckons, it was interesting to note how many talks mentioned the pressure stemming from the growing complexity of science in confronting long-term challenges, combined with the need to stand up to external scrutiny and prove more immediate impact.

In the face of such uncertainties, speakers went beyond paying mere lip-service to the ideas of partnership and multidisciplinarity. They genuinely stressed the need to streamline and incentivise research across disciplines, recognising that areas of research such as climate change represent a collision of uncertainties in the scientific data with the unpredictability of relevant social and economic variables. One interesting conclusion from the conference, as highlighted in the closing remarks, was the need to better apply behavioural science and psychological approaches, since considering the long term isn’t always a natural human mentality.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for scientists is communicating risk and uncertainty to the public, who don’t always anticipate uncertainties within scientific research. Yet given historic public mistrust of, or lack of engagement with, science, much more needs to be done. Solutions proposed included better use of case studies at a local level and receptive champions in different scientific sectors, responsible for translating evidence to users. More transparency may be necessary in communicating not only the evidence generated by research but also the process of research itself; people want to engage with scientists’ human stories, even if this involves more openness regarding the risk and uncertainty inherent in innovation.

One question left hanging in the air was how we can get people to make sacrifices now in combatting climate change when the potential pay-off is decades away. Technical scientific approaches alone are clearly not enough; as the recent UN Climate talks demonstrate, the bigger uncertainty is how policymakers and broader audiences will engage with the evidence at hand.

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