Category Archives: University of Michigan

COP18 Doha, Qatar: A positive view point from low on the totem pole

A guest post by Candace Rowell MPH. Candace is an alum of the University of Michigan School of Public Health Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and a former contributor to Mind The Science Gap.  She is currently a research associated with the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute in Doha, Qatar.

The traffic in Doha is horrendous. Ask anyone who lives here. It might take you 45 minutes to commute a mere 15 km. The summers are brutal – the temperature bounces around the 50⁰C mark and the humidity threatens to drown you on the doorstep.

Yes, this is Doha; Continue reading COP18 Doha, Qatar: A positive view point from low on the totem pole

Larry Brilliant: Enabling sustainable humanity through getting serious about risk

Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog


I’ve occasionally been accused of thinking big when it comes to Risk Science. So I was rather chuffed to hear former Executive Director of Larry Brilliant out-big me on every point as he delivered the 10th Peter M. Wege lecture here at the University of Michigan a couple of weeks ago.

Larry was talking about sustainable humanity, and the need to actively work toward a global society that overcomes problems (some old, some emerging) and continues to get better. But threaded through the lecture was the theme of risk, and the urgent need we face to become more educated and informed on the risks that humanity faces, and how together we can overcome them.

Many of the themes that emerged are near and dear to my heart, and are reflected in the Risk Science Center’s vision – enabling evidence-based and socially-responsive action on human health risks in a rapidly changing world. In fact, the lecture and Larry’s following answers to questions were so relevant to the Center that I felt like saying – next time someone asked what we were about – to simply say “what he said!”

Much of this was encapsulated in the following response to a question from Larry following the lecture:

We need a whole new generation of leaders, leaders who are cross-trained in governance, who understand risk literacy, who can communicate complex problems in simple ways, who truly believe in democracy, and who are willing to engage with their constituents in a way that ups the conversation. So people know what the hell they’re voting for. And what the consequences and the risks that they’re taking on. We’ve reached the stage where the public is being used as if it were the ultimate re-insurer. What happens when a nuclear power plant us built on an earthquake fault and things go bad? It’s paid for by the tax payers in ways that we haven’t contemplated. Who has done the risk cost benefit analysis of continuing to use fossil fuels? So these are not things that we normally train students with. It’s a shame but I think that the three “r’s” of reading, writing and arithmetic must have a fourth “r” added: risk; as we understand the ever-more risky world that we have inherited and the complex interrelated-ness of the factors that lead to it.

Of course, enabling sustainable humanity is about far more than risk. But, as Larry so eloquently indicated, we neglect developing a deep and sophisticated understanding of risk and how we should be responding to it at our peril.

The transcript of Larry Brilliant’s lecture can be read here, and the lecture and Q&A session can be listened to below:

[Track 1: Introductions. Track 2: lecture. Track 3: Q&A]

Dr. Larry Brilliant is Dr. Larry Brilliant is president of the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and a University of Michigan School of Public health alumnus.

The videos of the lecture and the following question and answer session can be watched here.

Risk, uncertainty and sustainable innovation: Feedback sought on symposium blurb

Despite the risk of receiving absolutely no comments (please don’t let me down!), I thought I’d try something new and ask for some feedback on the background blurb for a meeting I’ve been working on.

The meeting is a symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation being organized by the Risk Science center next September.  I’ve been struggling with the blurb for this meeting before it goes out – especially striking the balance between something that captures the imagination (and hopefully the attention) of potential speakers, sponsors and attendees, and something that has clarity and substance.

The text below is my latest draft.  What I would love to know – today ideally (knowing that you all are desperate for something to break the boredom of a Sunday afternoon) – is whether in your opinion this works, whether it is fluff without substance, whether it is the perfect insomnia cure, or whatever.

Please, please add your comments below – no matter how brief, or how qualified/unqualified you feel you are to say something.

Thank you!

Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation

New perspectives on emerging challenges

As we strive to build a sustainable future, do we need to rethink the relationship between risk, uncertainty and innovation?  Today’s accelerating rate of technology innovation promises profound personal, social and economic advances. But in an ever-more complex, interconnected and resource-constrained world, sustainable innovation is jeopardized by emergent risks, together with increasing uncertainty over potential benefits and impacts.  And no-where is this more apparent than at the intersection between technology innovation and human health.  Drawing on thought-leaders from a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, this symposium provides a unique forum for exploring new ideas on integrative approaches to health risks, uncertainty and innovation, as we look to develop sustainable solutions to global challenges.

Background: As technologies become more sophisticated, pressures on global resources grow and society becomes ever-more interconnected, governments, businesses and citizens are facing increasingly complex challenges as they strive to build an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future. Over the past century, technology innovation has accelerated to the point where scientists and engineers have greater control over materials, organisms and systems – from the atomic scale to the planetary scale – that ever before.  This has facilitated a radical shift in global communication, leading to an interconnected society where the flow of information, ideas and influence transcends geographical, economic and social boundaries.  At the same time, a growing and increasingly plugged-in world population is placing unprecedented demands on ever-scarcer global resources.

The result is a world where innovation is both a driver of and a potential source of solutions to an increasing number of emerging global challenges.

If we are to adapt and thrive in this changing world, we urgently need to better-enable sustainable innovation – the sustainable development of relevant and responsive new understanding, processes and products that support long-term advances in the quality of human life and the environment.  Yet sustainable innovation is inextricably intertwined with risk – particularly the danger of causing harm to human health – and uncertainty over the consequences of our actions.

Technology innovation leads to emergent risks – the likelihood of causing harm in a manner that is not apparent, assessable or manageable based on current approaches to risk assessment and management.  The more complex and rapid the innovation, the greater the chances of perceived or actual risks emerging that require new and responsive approaches to minimizing their impact.  But as a clear understanding of risks and how to manage them will always lag behind innovation, technology innovation is also dogged by uncertainty – particularly over how a specific course of action may lead to harm, and how this can be avoided.

If innovation is to support sustainable solutions to 21st century challenges, new and integrative approaches to risk and uncertainty are required.  New insight is needed on the interplay between risk, uncertainty and sustainable innovation.  Methods of moving risk-based decision-making upstream in the innovation cycle need to be explored.  And greater understanding of is needed on enabling collaborative decisions within an increasingly interconnected society in the face of uncertainty.

These are the challenges explored in the 2011 Symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation. Drawing on thought-leaders in industry, government, academia, the media and other sectors, the symposium will provide a unique opportunity to explore new ideas on sustainable innovation in the face of growing global challenges, emergent risks to human health, and increasing uncertainty over the potential benefits and consequences of technology innovation.

Tenure track faculty positions in risk science at the University of Michigan

Just thought I’d circulate this on the 2020 Science network – please feel free to pass on the information to anyone who might be interested.

We have finally started the process of looking for two junior faculty to join the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.  This is an exciting opportunity for two people to join the Center as it develops its vision and mission, and to have a significant role in helping build it up as an internationally recognized cross-disciplinary center of excellence dedicated to fostering new thinking, new understanding and new tools to support evidence-informed and socially relevant decisions on both emergent and extant risks to public health.

Full details on the position, qualifications and the application process can be found here.  We’ll be starting to review applications on December 1, although the positions will remain open until we find suitable candidates.

The politics of change

Well, it’s been a week since I upped sticks from D.C. and started my new life as an academic in Ann Arbor. It’s been an eventful week, with the start of a several-month commute between my family who are still in Northern Virginia and Michigan, and beginning to find my feet in a new town, organization and position.  But I think I’m going to enjoy it here.  Continue reading The politics of change