New foresight review suggests ways to improve public understanding of risk - to enable better decisions for a safer world

Reconciling facts and fears: NUS LRFI kick-starts Asia-focused risk research and communication

We've launched our foresight review on the public understanding of risk today. The launch took place at the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk’s (LRFI) conference on risk perception, management and communication, held at the National University of Singapore (NUS). 

The foresight review provides a better sense of the issues related to the public understanding of risk, and outlines recommendations on areas of focus for the nascent LRFI, which was established in October 2016. The report is produced in collaboration between the Foundation and NUS, and in consultation with an advisory panel comprising twenty international and cross-sectoral experts.  

Download the Foresight review on the public understanding of risk - click here.

Recommendations for the LRFI

The foresight review outlined the following recommendations as promising directions for the LRFI so that it can achieve maximum impact: 

Leveraging on the deep expertise in a broad range of disciplines at NUS, the Institute will study cross-cultural differences in risk perception with a focus on Asia. Many existing studies look at cultural differences across Western countries but data in Asian countries are still scarce. A pilot risk perception study conducted last year in China and India by NUS researchers showed that people overestimated the likelihood of events with low true frequency (such as death from terrorist attack and food poisoning), but underestimated the likelihood of events with high true frequency (such as cyber crime). Survey participants also generally overestimated others’ perception of risk. Such findings highlight the disparity between actual risk and perceived risk, and underscores the importance of the new Institute’s role in Asia to enhance public understanding of risk. Interestingly, the survey also showed that Chinese and Indian participants are most worried about different risks – the former is economic while the latter is environmental. Asia provides a diverse test bed and findings may be applicable to countries outside of Asia. 

The Institute will also develop new data using digital sources. The Institute aims to work with government ministries and social media companies to develop information and communications technology (ICT) to monitor trends and perceptions and establish data collection. This will allow the Institute to study the dynamic process of risk evolution and the impact of interventions. Being an outreach body, the Institute will also develop visuals to help the communication of risk to the public.

The Institute will also study future risks, particularly from emerging technologies. While emerging technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence hold the potential to improve society, they also bring forth new and interconnected risks. Envisioned to be co-located in one single building with other entities such as AI.SG and NUS-Singtel Cyber Security R&D Laboratory, the Institute is well-placed to look at such future risks.

Why public understanding of risk matters

We are all engaged in assessing risk in our daily lives – when we cross the road, when we take a new job, and when we buy a new product. If we can better understand our perceptions and assessments of risk, we can improve decisions about managing risks, and hence the outcomes for ourselves and for others.  An improved understanding of the complexity with which risk can be perceived and assessed can help us have meaningful discussions and fruitful negotiations when we disagree, such as debates on nuclear power or food safety. 

Prof Richard Clegg, Foundation Chief Executive said: “The rise in social media and the more recent phenomenon of ‘fake news’ has amplified the subjective nature of risk. Small incidents can often trigger massive social and economic impacts through the framing, images and stories carried in the media, generating a reaction that spreads far beyond those initially affected. These socially amplified responses can lead to an overestimation of the risk and can stigmatise technologies, places and products as a result, or create a demand for policy change which may not always be warranted.”

Most of the research into the public understanding of risk and communication of science to date has been conducted in a Western context. It is not as developed in Asia compared with the UK and USA – and the culture, attitude, and role of science are also different in Asian society. 

The LRFI was set up last year to address these gaps and to make a valuable contribution by developing as a centre of expertise for the public understanding of risk. Established with a £10 million grant by the Foundation and £11 million funding from NUS, the Institute aims to increase public understanding of risk in everyday situations, increase evidence-based public policy making and decision making, increase informed public dialogue around risk, and ultimately increase trust. 

Understanding risks and effectively communicating them will be increasingly vital as technological disruption and information dissemination increases at a dizzying pace. Notably, Asia is one of the world’s most vital economic blocks with 60 per cent of the world population residing here. Its 4.4 billion people drive the largest continental economy (by GDP) in the world. It is home to the world’s most recent economic booms in China, and previously in Japan and South Korea. 

Prof Phoon Kok Kwang, Interim Director of LRFI, said: “An Asia-based risk communications institute will pioneer the exploration and communication of the science of risk in Asia, necessarily integrating the cultural, political, and historical contexts of this part of the world. The Institute’s work will be crucial in helping to assuage fears and empower decision-making at all levels in Asia and beyond. Over the next five years, we hope to embark on up to 30 innovative projects and we look forward to collaborating with institutions who share common areas of interest.

About the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk (LRFI)

The Lloyd's Register Foundation Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk (LRFI) was launched in 2016. Established through a generous gift from the Lloyd's Register Foundation, LRFI is the first international academic and public outreach institution of its kind in Asia. LRFI will undertake research on the scientific understanding of scientific understanding of risk and its practical application through a multi-disciplinary approach that brings together science, engineering, social sciences, and humanities. Through outreach activities, LRFI will also enhance public dialogue on risk issues in Asia and internationally. Combined with its research and educational efforts, LRFI aspires to be a world-leading node of excellence to pave the way for policymakers, regulators, business leaders, scientists, and the general public to collectively make better decisions for the betterment of society.For more information on LRFI, please visit http://lrfi.nus.edu.sg/ 

Foresight reviews

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation has published several foresight reviews in a series commissioned as part of its emerging technologies research theme. Foundation grants and programmes that have resulted from previous reviews include a £10 million research grant for the Turing Institute (The Foresight review of big data, 2014), grants totalling £9 million to three international consortia in the field of nanotechnology (Foresight review of nanotechnology, 2014), and a £10 million resilience engineering programme established by the Foundation in partnership with global engineering and consultancy firm, Arup (Foresight review of resilience engineering, 2015). The Foresight review of structural integrity and systems performance was also published in 2015 and the Foresight review of robotics and autonomous systems in 2016. All the foresight reviews can be downloaded from the our website - click here