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Knowing how much you don’t know is a positive, say scientific experts

Picture of cover of publication for Your Expert Witness storyResearchers in climate science, disease modelling, epidemiology, weather forecasting and natural hazard prediction say that we should be relieved when scientists describe the uncertainties in their work. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we cannot make decisions – we might well have ‘operational knowledge’ – but it does mean that there is greater confidence about what is known and unknown.

That was message of a publication from Sense About Science – a charitable trust that aims to help the general public understand science. Making Sense of Uncertainty was launched at the World Conference of Science Journalists at the end of June.

Researchers working in some of the most significant, cutting edge fields say that if policy makers and the public are discouraged by the existence of uncertainty, we miss out on important discussions about the development of new drugs, taking action to mitigate the impact of natural hazards, how to respond to the changing climate and to pandemic threats.

In the introduction to the guide, which has contributions from experts in many fields of earth sciences, Tracey Brown and Tabitha Innocent from Sense About Science write: “We  want (even expect) certainty – safety, effective public policies, useful public expenditure. Uncertainty is seen as worrying, and even a reason to be cynical about scientific research – particularly on subjects such as climate science, the threat of disease or the prediction of natural disasters. In some discussions, uncertainty is taken by commentators to mean that anything could be true, including things that are highly unlikely or discredited, or that nothing is known.

Many scientists say that, interrogated with the question ‘But are you certain?’, they have ended up sounding defensive or as though their results are not meaningful. Instead, say the authors of the guide, we need to embrace uncertainty, especially when trying to understand more about complex systems.

In Making Sense of Uncertainty they review the current discussion and discuss:

• The way scientists use uncertainty to express how confident they are about results

• That uncertainty can be abused to undermine evidence or to suggest anything could be true: from alternative cancer treatments to anthropogenic CO2 not changing the atmosphere

• Why uncertainty is not a barrier to taking action – decision makers usually look for a higher level of certainty for an operational decision (such as introducing body scanners in airports) than for a decision based on broader ideology or politics (such as reducing crime rates).

Last Updated on Monday, 29 July 2013 16:53

Research identifies UK issues with climate change abroad

Recent research carried out by PriceWaterhouseCoopers – as part of the government’s National Adaptation Programme – looked at the possible impact of climate change overseas on UK trade and investment, food, health and well-being, energy, and foreign policy. The report found that climate change overseas could have greater impact on the UK climate change at home. The findings are based on a “medium emissions scenario consistent with 2°C warming”.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 July 2013 14:34


Retrofit experts line up for regional conference programme

Birmingham Energy Savers logo for Your Expert Witness storyA series of one-day conferences around the country will showcase the opportunities presented by the process of retrofit. The Retrofit Roadshows will take place in Liverpool and Birmingham in July, Newcastle and Cardiff in September and London in November.

Retrofit has become a big issue with the launch of The Green Deal and the roll out of the Energy Company Obligation (ECO). Applying low-carbon technology to existing buildings will revolutionise the opportunities for linking energy saving with economies.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 28 May 2013 17:16


Expert commentators condemn EU emissions trading vote

Picture of the inside of the European Parliament building for Your Expert Witness storyA leading transatlantic think tank became the latest to issue a report warning of crisis in the European carbon reduction programme as a result of the vote in the Parliament to reject reform of the Emissions Trading System (ETS).

Thomas Legge, a senior figure in the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS) wrote in a blog; “Europe’s reputation as a leader in climate change policy took another beating this month when the European Parliament rejected, by 334 votes to 315, a proposal to reform the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). The vote leaves Europe’s carbon-trading market — the world’s largest — at risk of collapse and threatens to fragment and complicate efforts to tackle climate change on both sides of the Atlantic.”

He pointed to the dramatic fall in the price of carbon in the wake of the credit crunch.

“Allowances (equivalent to one ton of carbon dioxide) traded at an average of over €20 during the whole of 2008. But the recession since 2008 and subsequent drop in industrial output in Europe resulted in a huge oversupply, and the price fell to around €5,” said Legge.

The article followed a claim by a British LibDem MEP that an increase in coal use in the EU for the first time in many years was because of the low price of carbon.

Fiona Hall MEP wrote in the online newsletter Public Service Europe: “The ETS is the largest carbon trading scheme in the world and is designed to drive down emissions from the power sector and heavy industry on an annual basis to achieve Europe's 20% GHG reduction target by 2020. Setting a carbon price was also meant to promote low carbon investments and drive innovation into green technology.

“Yet, the current EU carbon price is almost 10 times lower than was expected when the ETS was agreed in 2008 – due to the large oversupply of emission allowances in the wake of the economic crisis.”

Thomas Legge pointed out that the Parliament vote will not destroy EU climate policy, but demonstrated that a new approach was needed.

“The failure of top-down global attempts to address climate change had given way to national or regional programs such as the EU ETS, whose individual successes could have generated imitations elsewhere,” he wrote.” The European Union has just begun a process to define new targets for reducing its emissions by 2030. Having failed so far to rescue the EU ETS, Europe’s political leaders need to rediscover some of their old ambition if the continent is to repair its reputation as an environmental leader.”

Last Updated on Friday, 10 May 2013 16:17

Support sought for environmental good practice guide for interiors

ciria logo for your Expert Witness storyThe Construction Industry Research and Information Association (CIRIA) is seeking support from industry experts for a project to develop an environmental good practice guide for the interiors sector. The guide will “…reflect current best practice and legislation to ensure effective design and delivery of good practice on site”.

According to CIRIA, construction activity inevitably has an impact on the wider environment. Good environmental practice enables that impact, which includes transport, noise, pollution and the indirect impact of product selection, to be managed positively.

The construction industry is responsible for high levels of waste – around 10% of all raw materials on many sites end up as waste – and there is increasing pressure from regulators, environmental groups, other businesses and residents to ensure that the construction industry’s activities reduce its impact on the environment.

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 April 2013 17:22