Report underlines the impact of risk on society’s decisions

Medical procedures could become unsafe to perform if antimicrobial resistance continues to spread. Photo: scotth23/Pixabay

We live in a risky world. Risks from antibiotic resistance, environmental impacts and international security are hot issues in research, but delaying action until the science is settled isn’t always feasible.

The Australian Academy of Science recently released a think tank report discussing how risk and uncertainty impact the decisions we make as a society.

An interdisciplinary approach to living in a risky world (PDF 750kb) addresses specific risks from antibiotic resistance, environmental challenges, international security and the challenges of making decisions when data is uncertain.

The report is the product of the 2016 Theo Murphy High Flyers Think Tank, which brought together 60 early- and mid-career researchers from the humanities, social sciences and sciences to inform the direction of Australia’s future.

A major risk is antimicrobial resistance, which could claim 10 million lives a year worldwide by 2050 and make routine medical procedures such as hip replacements and caesarean sections unsafe to perform. The report recommends changes to antibiotic prescription and usage, and proposes that antibiotic usage in foods be included on labels to inform consumers.

The difficulty of adequately costing environmental impacts and factoring them into cost-benefit analyses when allocating resources for environmental projects is also covered in the report. Risks that unfold or change over long time periods are particularly difficult to grapple with.

The report recommends that policy makers and scientists jointly develop guidelines for cost-benefit analysis, and that tools used by scientists for sequential decision making could be simplified and adopted for policy makers.

Another recommendation is the development of agreed terminology to help communication between scientists and policy makers.

Uncertainty plays a large role in the risks inherent in negotiating international security concerns. The report offers recommendations on a broad range of international security issues such as global migration flows, Australia’s compliance with international legal obligations, environmental change and disruptive technologies.

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science

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