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Rehabilitating “Risk”
Andrew Maynard   Oct 14, 2010   2020 Science  

Now that I’ve had some time to get to grips with my new position as Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center, I thought it was high time I started letting people know something about where the Center will be heading over the next few years.

Risk is often treated as a four-letter word, or an embarrassing relative - something distasteful that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite society. Yet the reality is that a clear understanding of risk and how to deal with it is essential to every aspect of our lives.

image1The past hundred years have left us a horrifying legacy of what goes wrong when people ignore risks, or fail to identify, access and manage them appropriately, or aren’t equipped to make informed decisions as new potential issues arise. And the challenges are only going to get tougher in today’s increasingly technology-dependent, interconnected and resource-constrained world.

Without a doubt, if we are to build a sustainable future in the 21st century, we need to rethink our approach to risk. We need integrative, cross-disciplinary approaches to understanding and managing risks that are inclusive of all stakeholders. We need to push the process of identifying and addressing potential risks up-stream in the innovation process. And we need to equip everyone from citizens to CEO’s and journalists to policy makers to make informed decisions in the face of increasing uncertainty and complexity.

When I accepted the directorship of the Risk Science Center earlier this year, it was this forward-looking challenge that was uppermost in my mind. We already have a strong tradition at the University of Michigan, and elsewhere, of assessing risks to human health through research in areas like toxicology, epidemiology, and exposure, and using generated data to drive decisions on risk management and mitigation.

But we struggle to deal with emergent risks presented by new technologies (or new ways of using old technologies) in a changing world. Everyone does - there is no manual (yet) for how to address human health risks from increasingly complex technologies, and how to do this in a society where stakeholder and citizen engagement is becoming increasingly important, where uncertainty dominates the decision-making process, and where ill-informed decisions on risks and benefits could be potentially catastrophic.

image2So my aim is for the Risk Science Center to spearhead the movement toward a new risk paradigm. By integrating cutting-edge science, multi-stakeholder partnerships, and effective communication, the Center will be working towards avoiding harm from existing and emerging technologies while ensuring their benefits are fully realized. It’s an approach that will significantly reduce the chances of future adverse health impacts - but it’s also one that makes sound business sense.

This is still very much a work in progress. Over the next year, the governance structure of the Center will be established, its vision, mission, aims, and activities will be further developed, and this website will undergo a major overhaul - creating a resource and community nexus for stakeholders, faculty, and students engaged in thinking differently about risk.

In the meantime, please check out the Risk Science Center’s About page for further information on how the Center is developing. And keep an eye out for new initiatives coming out of the Center - including next year’s Bernstein Symposium on “Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation: New Perspectives on Emerging Challenges”.

Risk may still be a four-letter word to some, but that’s going to have to change if we as a society are going to tackle the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century and come out on top. As the Risk Science Center develops, expect it to be front and center of this change.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.


“tackle the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century”

‘Challenges’ is PC for dislocation & carnage—the two go together.

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