Communication Challenges Associated with the Expression of Uncertainty in the Plant Health Risk Register

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Executive Summary

Section 1: Introduction
The aim of this review was to identify communication challenges associated with the expression of uncertainty in the Plant Health Risk Register (PHRR) and inform future Defra strategies for addressing these challenges.
Our starting point is that the communication of uncertainty potentially relates to much more than issues of wording, numerical format and presentation. The effective communication of science and associated uncertainties, particularly for high profile / high consequence pests and diseases can require more than the application of tools and techniques that simplify and demystify complex phenomena.
First we describe the PHRR itself, its history and the aspirations for it as a risk management tool (Section 2). A working definition of uncertainty and an overview of its various manifestations follow in Section 3. We consider the reasons why uncertainty should be communicated, and suggest the particular challenges of doing so within the PHRR (Section 4). This leads to a consideration of the reasons that there might be for expert risk-assessor reluctance to communicate uncertainty (Section 5) – which includes the evidence pertaining to media characterisations. Section 6 considers the way in which lay audiences might make sense of uncertainty. The next two sections move to what can be characterised as micro-level considerations, first considering evidence, largely from cognitive psychology, about the interplay between cognitive biases / recourse to heuristics and the characterisation of uncertainty that can impact on how risk is perceived and reacted to by stakeholders (Section 7) and second, broader social science insights on the accuracy of lay interpretations of alternative representations and characterisations of uncertainty (Section 8). In conclusion, in Section 9, we reflect on the main lessons to be drawn for the communication of uncertainty relating to the PHRR and, in particular, consider the implications of alternative formats for representing and characterising uncertainty in the PHRR.

Section 2: Background to the Plant Health Risk Register
Developing a PHRR was one of the key recommendations of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Expert Task Force which reported in 2013. The PHRR aimed to provide a single repository for drawing together numerous risk assessments pertaining to individual pests and pathogens. As well as serving to prioritise risks, it was charged with ‘enabling systematic and proportionate risk management responses’, including stakeholder engagement. In response to this recommendation the PHRR was developed.
The inputs to the overall UK Relative Risk Rating score ratings are subject to various forms of uncertainty. The way in which they are combined is also subject to uncertainty. How can these uncertainties best be recognised, captured and represented?
Three main options are explored:
1. An uncertainty range referenced to the Risk Register rating
2. An uncertainty range translated into monetised impacts
3. Risk Register supplemented by an uncertainty proxy rating derived from published findings and related scientific insights.

Section 3: Uncertainty: boundaries, definitions and types
It is recognised that relevant domains of uncertainty extend beyond the technical properties of pests and diseases and options over their mitigation/control. They extend to the social world, and include uncertainty over economic impacts; stakeholder reactions to threats; and, the capacity of g/Government and its institutions to influence the behaviour of others, notably in the areas of propagation of acceptance and adoption of mitigation measures.
Definitions of uncertainty and the distinction between risk and uncertainty are outlined. Most particularly the distinction is made between uncertainty in risk assessment and policy delivery are outlined.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherUniversity of Bath
Commissioning bodyDepartment for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016


  • Risk Communication Psychology


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