Thinking about Science, Technology and Disaster Management - Honorary Director's Blog



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Thinking about Science, Technology and Disaster Management

Keywords: Informed consent, risk management, nuclear reactor, Noboru Kobayashi, Great East Japan Earthquake, science and technology

Considering what has taken place over the past year. Understandably, what comes to everyone's mind is the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 and the Fukushima nuclear accident. A nationwide survey in June 2011 indicated that the nuclear accident was considered the most serious crisis in the Great East Japan Earthquake, followed by 19% and 24% who answered the "earthquake" and "tsunami," respectively. In other words, 55%, more than twice as many respondents thought the nuclear accident was more a serious crisis than the earthquake itself or the tsunami.

Tsunami and earthquakes are themselves part of the phenomenon of the Great East Japan Earthquake, but the nuclear accident makes us, as citizens, think twice about science, and the meaning of education related to technology that is produced by such science. Nevertheless, living as we do in a scientifically and technologically advanced and materialistically affluent society, while we may be able to perceive the issues involved, it is hard to think about them from a scientific perspective.

As we all know, such questions abound now: Why couldn't we have predicted the earthquake? Why was the height of the tsunami underestimated? Why couldn't the nuclear accident have been prevented? Was the cause related to the nuclear reactor design? Are current radioactivity levels safe? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered on scientific grounds.

These questions highlight the activities of scientists and the corporate world. While the truth of these accusations is hard to ascertain, there is a lot of talk about scientists who have sold their soul to the corporations for money, bogus scientists, or the corporate world that only cares about making money and has forgotten about safety. It also involves questions of social responsibility and how to communicate risk to society at large.

I think it was in the 1970s that we began to hear about "informed consent" coming from the U.S. at hospitals and clinics. Simply put, it refers to the practice of the doctor fully explaining the medical treatment to the patient in advance. At very least, instead of one-sided communication from the doctor to the patient, it created an equal relationship, and in a sense, was able to raise the level of medical care treatment. In that respect, looking at the confusion surrounding science and technology in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, it is time to think about how to communicate risk in today's society.

It seems that in 1989, the National Research Council in the U.S. proposed an idea of risk communication that is similar to informed consent. It defined the exchange of information and opinion on risk between individuals, institutions and groups, etc., as a two-way, interactive process between the providers and receivers of information. Problems often occur when the scientist is the information provider and citizens are the receivers. As a matter of course, in the planning stages of a nuclear reactor or construction, risk communication between scientists and corporations becomes an important issue. I will leave the details of risk communication to another publication, but our society has also come to the point where we will not be able to live without it.

If all scientists, people in corporate business, and citizens fully considered these matters logically and ethically, there would be no need to talk about risk communication, but just as informed consent arrived with advances in medicine, it is time to discuss and determine what should be the practices of risk communication in a scientifically and technologically advanced society. Today, risk often tends to be calculated by computer as probability, which can be confusing to the public. Without accurate, easy-to-understand information, people will not be moved to consider risk and make a decision on how to act. Moreover, Japan is a country with a high probability of natural disasters such as earthquakes.

In the early 1960s, I studied at a pediatrics hospital in London for three years. While living there, one of my strongest impressions was that British society was one where scientists like Newton and Darwin were regular citizens walking the streets like everyone else. Of course, that is based on the particular history and traditions of science and technology in the UK, in which ordinary citizens have been able and encouraged to think about things in scientific and technological terms. Indeed, if a disaster like the 3.11 earthquake had occurred in the UK, how would the citizens have reacted? Japanese society must strive to renew its way of thinking about science and technology, which were originally imported from Europe and the U.S. This means raising the level of scientific and technological knowledge among children and considering what kind of risk communication is most appropriate for our culture here.

Toshiko Kikkawa. "Risk Communication." Kagaku. Vol. 82. No. 1 (Jan. 2012): p. 48-55.

Hirotada Hirose. "The Need for Disaster Measures and Disaster Flexibility in an Era of Compound Disasters." Kagaku. Vol. 82. No. 1 (Jan. 2012): p. 93-99.