Next week I am being “installed” here at the University of Michigan. Not in the sense of installing a carpet – as one friend suggested – but in the sense of being installed as an endowed professor. The Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science Professor to be precise.
To mark the occasion, I’m expected to entertain the crowds here with deep, expansive and probably incomprehensible thoughts on risk science.
Not sure I can deliver that, but here’s the ‘teaser” that was circulated on what I might be touching on:
By 2050, over nine billion people will be placing unprecedented demands on the earth’s resources – a demand that will only be met through developing and using new technologies. But in today’s complex and interconnected world, the safety and success of technology-based solutions is by no means assured. As we strive to build a sustainable future, we need to think differently about how rapid social and technological change are leading to new risk-challenges, and how they are best addressed. In effect, we need a new risk science for a new century. Professor Maynard will be talking about the new challenges of enabling sustainable development in a complex, interconnected and risky world.
A more accurate – but substantially more boring – account of what I’m likely to cover is given in the lecture’s abstract:
Risk is intimately intertwined with human life. From the earliest beginnings of life, risk has been part and parcel of natural selection; forcing evolution along paths that minimize risk while maximizing benefits.
Risk has by turns stimulated and limited our own achievements as a species for thousands of years. In fact everything we do – or don’t do – as individuals and as a society has the potential to lead to beneficial or adverse consequences. So it’s not surprising that we have evolved sharp instincts for dealing with possible risks.
These instincts have served us well in the past. But they have proven increasingly unreliable as we have become ever more reliant on complex technologies. To overcome these limitations, we have turned to science as a means of developing systematic and evidence-based approaches risks that aren’t compromised by human vagaries. The resulting “risk science” – built on sound scientific principles – has supported the rapid development of many significant technologies over the past hundred years. But heading into the 21st century, it is increasingly doubtful whether this “old” risk science will continue provide the necessary support to build a sustainable future.
We are entering a unique time in humanity’s history: We face a future dominated by complex and rapidly developing technologies; unprecedented global interconnectedness; and dwindling natural resources. These three factors are converging to shake up not only the challenges and opportunities we face as a global society, but also the very methodologies we use to get to where we need to be. As we embrace this future, we will need a “new” risk science – one that draws on “science” in the broadest possible sense to enable evidence-informed and socially-responsive decision-making in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.
Whatever I end up saying, I’m toying around with some new presentation techniques for the talk. These might work, or they might bomb – either way, it should be entertaining for the audience, if not for me!
The lecture is being held between 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM on Wednesday November 17 in the University of Michigan School of Public Health – feel free to drop in if you are in the area. There’s a reception afterward – which is never a bad thing!