Risk scholars and practitioners are grappling with how best to govern risk in the face of growing calls and rationales for democratization. The centrality of public trust to effective risk governance, the fragmentation of perceptions of risk, and growing expectations for public involvement in risk decision-making, all characterize risk governance in the twenty-first century.
The COVID-19 global health pandemic is an example underscoring the critical importance of public trust in risk decision-making. Whether trust in the safety of vaccines, trust in the necessity of lockdown measures, or trust in the very existence of the pandemic itself, successfully addressing the crisis has hinged on public confidence in government decisions. The pandemic has also made visible how perceptions of risk can differ among and between experts and the public, how public perceptions of risk are forever vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation, and the importance for governments of incorporating the views of citizens, communities, and stakeholders into their decision-making.
In sum, it has become increasingly clear that effective risk governance requires successfully confronting differences in expert and public perceptions of risk, effectively engaging the public, and fostering public trust in decisions. All three objectives can challenge fundamental epistemological, cultural, and ontological underpinnings of risk governance. Understanding the reasons why this is the case (and why not), carefully disentangling causes and effects, and providing case studies of real-world efforts to address the dilemmas, lays the groundwork for informed reform of risk governance arrangements.
Against this backdrop, the ISSP created the project, @Risk: How to Strengthen Risk Governance in Canada. @Risk aimed to advance scholarly and empirical understandings of public participation in risk decision-making, of ways to conceptualize and address differences in public and expert perceptions of risk, and means to foster public trust in risk governance.
The project comprised a multidisciplinary research team of more than two dozen scholars and graduate students from eleven Canadian and US universities, along with half a dozen senior practitioners from five partner organizations. Central to the project were practitioner members of the research team who gave generously of their time, experience, and insights throughout the study to ensure the research was grounded in and informed by the ‘real worlds’ of risk governance.
The project focused on ten case studies in three policy areas:
- Energy: high-level nuclear waste disposal, hydraulic fracturing, and carbon capture, utilization, and storage
- Public Health: vaccination (mandatory childhood vaccination, COVID-19 vaccine priority groups, COVID-19 vaccine decision-making among diverse communities), mammography and prostate cancer screening, water fluoridation
- Genomics: newborn bloodspot screening and genetically engineered salmon