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What's Next: Denise Caruso

What we need in 2007 is to adopt a more effective model for anticipating the risks of new technologies, products and processes, whether they're born of worldchanging urges or the opportunities of the marketplace.
Today's assessment methods are dangerously out of date, practiced largely behind closed doors of government agencies and too easily and often based on faulty assumptions and selective scientific "evidence." Recent history is littered with examples of how stupendously nearsighted this approach has been. Global warming is the most obvious result of dismissing the risks of industrial processes and fossil fuels. Pick one of many pharma scandals, from heart-stopping Vioxx to suicide-inducing antidepressants, for another example. Unmonitored transgenic organisms, growing and reproducing virtually everywhere on the planet, may prove to be a ticking time-bomb, too.

The good news is that we don't have to invent this new model for risk assessment: it already exists. Risk experts assembled by the U.S. National Academies developed it more than a decade ago. They concluded the only way to make effective and responsible decisions about the safety of new technologies was to subject them to a deliberative, democratic process, openly conducted, that includes not just scientists but *all* the people with relevant expertise and perspectives about the problem.
In a world where power does not corrupt, these democratic risk deliberations would have long since become the method of choice used by governments around the world. We are a long way from that day. But the best news about this method is that we can do it ourselves. Anyone - nonprofits, universities, chambers of commerce, coalitions, newspapers, churches - can host these inclusive risk conversations. And the Internet will telegraph the process and its results around the world, so that everyone can benefit.

Adopting this new approach is particularly important now. Millions of dollars are being invested in innovative and often radical technologies to heal the planet, from vaccines and alternative energy sources to bio-remedial microbes. It would be a most unpleasant irony if, in our enthusiasm, we ended up creating bigger problems with our worldchanging technologies than we solve.

Denise Caruso is the founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Hybrid Vigor Institute in 2000 to study and practice collaboration in the service of new solutions for complex social and scientific problems. She recently published a trade book on risk, public policy and biotechnology, Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet, and continues to work on projects both in academia and the private sector to improve the practice of risk analysis for science and technology-related innovations.

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Denise, you say "Anyone - nonprofits, universities, chambers of commerce, coalitions, newspapers, churches - can host these inclusive risk conversations. And the Internet will telegraph the process and its results around the world, so that everyone can benefit." However if anyone can do it, there will be inevitable questions about the validity of assessments. How do you establish the value of any one group or assessment? How does an assessment influence, or get translated into, policy?

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 29 Dec 06

Hi Jon,

I'm resisting the temptation to say "read my book, and you'll know." (grin) The reality is that right now, there is no legal connection between these kinds of collaborative risk assessments and policy. One of the things I'm agitating for is that they do become a legislated part of the decision-making process, as risk experts have been recommending for more than a decade.

The validity of the assessment is derived from the way it's conducted, which includes full transparency, and everyone at the table has a vote about who can and should be be part of the conversation. If the assessment isn't done the way it's supposed to be, which is designed to eliminate bias, then it's not credible. Devil in details as always, but it still beats hell out of what we've got now.

I don't have the space to go into the whole process here, but it's pretty well outlined in a U.S. National Academies study called Understanding Risk: Informing Decisions in a Democratic Society, which is what started me down this path. There are some case studies therein that I found very useful, and Intervention lists some as well.

Hope that answers your question, and nice to hear from you.

Posted by: denise caruso on 6 Jan 07



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