There was a very interesting piece on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on the 3rd of March where the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser was responding to a report from the Commons Science Select Committee calling for more scientific input to the National Risk Register. Acknowledging that the UK response to the volcanic ash cloud last year could have been better, Sir John suggested that this was a good example of where more scientific input would have been valuable. However when pressed by the interviewer, he accepted that, even with greater scientific input, it was still quite possible that we would not have predicted that particular scenario. So what is the point then?
As Sir John himself noted the risks of most interest are those of low likelihood where data are very scarce, so it is questionable how much more scientific it is possible to be. More fundamentally though, the National Risk Register is symbolic of a flawed approach to Risk Management that focuses on the identifying specific hazards and assigning estimates of likelihood and impact. Ignoring the inherent errors in these estimates, the Government’s approach then makes the heroic logical leap of saying that you can simply combine these two estimates to give an overall risk rating.
In the absence of reliable data, it is much better to focus on the consequences of disruption rather than the causes. If the Government had made generic contingency plans to deal with the loss of air transport for a short period (regardless of the cause), these could have mitigated the effects of both volcanic ash and the subsequent severe winter weather.