Assessing risk

In an uncertain world, working out the risk that’s acceptable is very hard

An awareness of possible drawbacks leads us to consider risk. Broadly speaking, risk analysis makes us think about:

  • the likelihood that something bad will happen
  • the consequences of the bad thing happening.

We then weigh these factors against the benefits, real or potential. Industry and governments need to make more formal assessments of risk, but that’s far from easy with a new technology.

It’s in industry’s interest to drive forward, to get products to market as rapidly as possible. The Government has to walk a tightrope, supporting industry to generate wealth and adhering to the rules of the European Union but maintaining a bigger picture to ensure that any negative consequences don’t outweigh the benefits.

This is where regulation comes in. The UK has many regulatory structures: health and safety, employment law, environmental protection and others. There is now a strong focus on making ‘evidence-based decisions’ on risk that ignore hype and hysteria to focus on the results of controlled experiments.

Better safe than sorry?

Nowadays, many groups argue that we should adopt a ‘safety-first’ approach, following the precautionary principle. This states that technologies should not be introduced when it’s theoretically possible that they might cause serious problems, even if there’s no firm proof of harmful effects. They must first be shown to be absolutely safe.

This all sounds fine in principle, but what do we actually mean by ‘safe’? How safe is safe enough? Proving a negative – that something does not do harm – is difficult, if not impossible.

And caution may have its own cost. In medicine, it may lead to the later introduction of drugs, or to promising drugs being abandoned if their side-effects are thought to be too severe.

Scientists have also pointed out that many historic scientific achievements would not have happened had the precautionary principle been applied – ranging from vaccination and the contraceptive pill to the internet.

Just because we take our time to check the options carefully doesn’t mean everyone will. Less cautious companies or countries may feel the risks are worth taking. We can try to adopt the moral high ground and push for ‘higher standards’ in other countries, but that can easily sound like rich countries trying to hold back poorer ones.

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr put it: “Prediction is very difficult, particularly about the future.”

Lead image:

GotCredit CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development