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Walport calls on RCUK to expand research on risk

Image: hojusaram [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

The UK’s capacity to undertake multidisciplinary research into risk and risk communication is too small, government chief scientific adviser Mark Walport has said in his first annual report.

In the introduction to the report Innovation: Managing risk, not avoiding it, Walport says, “The UK research councils and universities should collaborate to fund and support the development of this capacity." He adds that the scope of the work should range from undergraduate to postgraduate courses, doctoral training and support for the next generation of leaders.

The report, released on 19 November by the Government Office for Science, aims to “help policymakers and citizens make better decisions about innovation”. Chapters and case studies included in the report, written by researchers in the field, range from considering genetically modified crops to the regulation of financial services.

Regulation is a method for controlling risk, the report says, but it warns that regulation can hinder innovation. “In recent years the regulatory burden for the introduction of new drugs has increased, with parallel huge increases in the associated development costs.”

Walport outlines a few priority guidelines for making regulatory decisions, and to frame those decisions. He says that the risk of innovation should be considered “in the round”, and that “not acting is also a choice that may create its own risks”. Multiple ways of achieving the same innovation outcome should be considered, he adds. The report points out that science should not be the only lens used in decision making—economic, social and political considerations should be taken into account.

“Debates about risk are also debates about values, ethics and choices. If these broader questions are ignored, conflicts can become intensive and disabling. It is important that scientists working with decision-makers recognise the breadth of the discussions, and equally important for decision-makers to realise that science is a vital component of that discussion,” Walport says.

Looking beyond the UK, Walport concludes that the European Commission needs to ensure it is receiving rigorous scientific input. There is a great variety of opinion on technological innovations relating to, for example, genetic modification across the continent. Walport says that although the question of whether it is desirable to innovate at the pace of the slowest member of the European Union is a matter for politicians, scientists should ensure their work is evaluated and communicated as part of the discussion.