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Learn to live with uncertainty

Learn to live with uncertainty

The 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands

How to deal with potential risks of technological and scientific innovations?

Radiation from radio/TV/mobile telephone masts, the chemical composition of children’s toys, genetically modified food, underground storage of CO2. All examples of technological innovations that have led to social unrest, to discussions about risks and safety.

Policymakers then turn to scientists and ask whether it is a threat to public health or not. But they cannot give the answer, because neither the dangers nor the safety can be determined beyond doubt. In short, how should we deal with this uncertainty?

Marijke Hermans and Tessa Fox, two Ph.D. candidates at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, are both doing research on this issue. Hermans is focusing more on social unrest, such as in the case of the installation of mobile phone base stations. She visits cities in Flanders and the Netherlands and talks to citizens, policymakers and journalists.

“At the end of the nineties, governments felt that these base stations had to be installed, no matter what. The only question that was asked was whether they were safe or not. That the stations would not be welcome, could have been expected after the protests by those living near nuclear power stations. Nevertheless, the authorities never wondered how to deal with the involvement of local citizens and other stakeholders. It is advisable not to limit issues like these to a merely scientific matter. Other target groups should also be involved.”

Fox focuses on the policymakers and their choices, for example on the basis of the case of the polycarbonate baby bottles containing the chemical compound BPA. When heated, the compound could end up in the milk and affect the nervous system. Although researchers do not agree on the risks, the European Commission has banned the bottles (since 1 March).

“Was that smart,” Fox wonders. “According to a large group of scientists, nothing is wrong. And maybe the alternatives that come on the market will have a much greater degree of uncertainty. The EU commissioner says: ‘Don’t worry, the bottles are safe now.’ Is this a good strategy or are you creating the mere appearance of certainty? It may well be that the bottle manufacturer concerned is doing a better job. They put the current state of affairs about the uncertainty on their website. A good example of acknowledgment.”

It may take some getting used to, the researchers say, but still: “We have to learn to live with uncertainty.”


Maurice Timmermans

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has listed the 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands. The 50th is the result of a competition, which was won by two UM researchers.



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