When the weather forecaster says that “there is a twenty per cent chance of rain tomorrow” do you put on a mackintosh? Or do you assume that you’ll be ok without a coat, because a twenty per cent chance seems pretty low? Many of us view the weather forecast with scepticism but still complain vociferously when it seems as though the forecaster has got it wrong. In fact modern forecasts are remarkably accurate. If conditions don’t measure up to our expectations it’s often because of geographical variability or timing, factors that are difficult to forecast with precision. But we also don’t seem to be very good at understanding uncertainty. We expect the forecast to be just that, a definite prediction of the future. Of course, in reality, it can only be modelled on what is happening at the moment. Poor Michael Fish will always be remembered as the forecaster who denied that there was going to be a hurricane, even though he did say that it was going to be windy. When serious damage, injury and even death ensue, questions about “fault” emerge, of course. We have seen that very clearly in Italy this week. Six scientists and a government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned because they failed to foresee a major earthquake that struck the town of l’Aquila in 2009. This is very shocking to fellow scientists who understand all too well how difficult it is to predict earthquakes with accuracy. Such predictions always carry a large margin of uncertainty. One effect of the verdict is likely to be that researchers will be unwilling to advise governments or to take part in public communications exercises in the future. But were the scientists perhaps to blame in the way they communicated? It may be that at the public meeting where they talked about risk they did sound too reassuring. Or, alternatively, was the audience predisposed to hear the reassuring words, rather than the caveats that the scientists insist were included? Just as we would rather think that a twenty per cent chance of rain means we don’t need a mackintosh after all. But in reality it would probably be wise to pick up an umbrella, just in case, and think ourselves lucky that we don't have to worry about earthquakes in the UK.
Tuesday, 16 October 2012
As a communicator rather than an academic I have, at times, found some of the debates going on around me mystifying and, to be honest, a bit pretentious. "What is knowledge?" seems to be a favourite one and "when does information become knowledge?" is another. I sometimes think I'm listening to arguments over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But, over the past five years, as I have been engaged in the reality of disseminating results from the research, the issues become more concrete. Researchers are usually striving to answer important questions that would help real people in the real world. Often they might be producing lots of data or information, but it isn't necessarily emerging in a form that is going to be useable by potential audiences. The Relu programme was designed to address this gap by engaging potential knowledge users from the very outset, and I think that we have achieved a great deal. But we still aren't perfect by any means. Projects have gone to great lengths to ensure knowledge exchange takes place, with advisory panels and events that facilitate the process, at programme level we have targeted users very strategically and our publications aim to provide information in the right form. As a result, I think we do better than many research programmes have managed in the past. But, although the gap between knowledge production and application is growing smaller, it's often still there. Representatives ask those "simple" questions, and researchers look surprised, because they have produced the results and published them in an academic journal, and that, surely, is all they are being paid to do? They have a point; too often there's no money in the budget for doing anything else. And how much effort and resources are policy makers and organisations putting into drawing out the information they say they need? It's very variable. Whatever your point of view on these questions, it isn't going to solve the problem, particularly in these straitened times. The reality is, however, that research which goes nowhere beyond the academic journal isn't benefiting anyone, except possibly the researcher and his/her career. Even that may cease to be the case as we all strive to measure that elusive "impact" for Research Excellence Framework, or REF. So perhaps we do need to put a bit more thought into the philosophical question "what is knowledge"? and how all that data is going to be turned into useful information when designing research proposals.