Existential Risk: Communication and Policy

  • Research into existential risk can only be of full value if it is translated into governmental and industry policy, as well as public awareness. CSER is uniquely well-placed to guide decision-makers in both government and industry, and to provide a bridge between the concerns of scientists and those of the public.

Understanding risk and uncertainty

  • Communication of existential risk research is complicated by a host of conceptual difficulties: these include scope insensitivity (our difficulty in correctly understanding the scale of certain risks versus others), availability bias (we worry more about the risks we hear about most often, rather than those most likely to cause harm), and high water mark bias (the tendency to expect that the most extreme past catastrophe represents the maximum risk we may face). In particular, an understanding of uncertainty plays a crucially important role in assessing high-impact, low-probability events, but can be very difficult to communicate effectively to the public and policymakers, as is currently being seen in the climate debate.

Separating fact from fiction

  • A further problem is that the media is saturated with sensationalist “end of the world” stories and predictions, making it more difficult for policymakers and the public to separate the threats worth worrying about from the science fiction.

  • By bringing the expertise of some of the world’s most eminent scientists and policymakers to bear on the most critical threats, we can successfully separate fact from fiction, and produce recommendations that governments and public alike can have confidence in.

Translating research into solutions

  • A team of researchers with backgrounds in social science, law, science, and policy, will work to address these challenges, and to translate CSER’s ground-breaking risk research into practicable solutions and recommendations. This team will be led by Martin Rees, and will be guided by his extensive experience in science communication and policy.

  • CSER will further draw on the expertise of high-level communicators, psychology experts and policy analysts including Susan Owens (Professor of Environment and Policy, Cambridge), David Spiegelhalter (Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, Cambridge), Rob Doubleday (Director, Centre for Science and Policy), Bill Sutherland (Professor of Conservation Biology), Alison Gopnik (Professor of Psychology, Berkeley) Jonathan Wiener (Law & Public Policy, Duke University), Judge Richard Posner (author of Catastrophe: Risk and Response), and David Cleevely (Centre for Science and Policy; former member of the Ministry of Defence).

Guiding decision-makers

  • A key part of our strategy will be to organise regular high-level workshops, in which we bring together leading academic and scientific experts with governmental representatives and members of think tanks to tackle specific problems within technological risk. The first of these, focusing on the capabilities and limitations of genome modification, is planned for mid-2014. CSER’s own experts will also play a regular role in advising policymakers and governmental organisations.