The Science Team: Public Views of Uncertainty

The Science Team: Public Views of Uncertainty

Earlier this month, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Emma Soane, an Assistant Professor at LSE’s Department of Management, to discuss her work on the Science Team project, a program of work focused on public views of uncertainty which was funded by the EPSRC and accredited as a Global Uncertainties Project. 

Kate McNeil: Would you mind getting started by telling me a little bit about your research background, and how you ended up working on the Science Team project?

Dr Emma Soane: I am a charted psychologist, with training in organizational psychology. My early career included work in the National Health Service and then work at London Business School studying risk-taking and decision-making among traders at four top tier investment banks. That was in the pre-crash days, when people were making a lot of money, and it was fascinating to get insights on of the role of emotions on trading and on decision-making in that organizational environment. The powerful influences which affect decision-making in organizations – and the consequences those decision then have – is one that really stuck with me. Later, while working at Kingston Business School, the theme of decision-making came up at an EPSRC sandpit, and from that emerged the Science Team project.

Can you tell me a bit more about your experience with the EPSRC sandpit?

The sandpit experience was one put together by the research councils to fund projects that would not ordinarily be developed. I applied to participate in a sandpit relating to decision-making, risk, and uncertainty. Then, 25 of us were selected to participate in a five-day program of activities at a hotel in the countryside, where we were given projects to work on and were tasked with developing ideas for innovative and cross-disciplinary projects coordination with other participants from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. There were two of us in the social sciences, and other people present came from disciplines such as engineering and mathematics. Throughout the program, we had an event with a dancer, we heard from two architects, we had a talk from a conductor… The idea was just to spark our thinking.

Throughout the week, we developed proposals for programs, and we were observed by the funders while doing so, so that they could get a sense of who we were, and what our role in developing and delivering projects was likely to be. They also gave us feedback throughout the week. Then, at the end of the week, we made a pitch. I came away from the sandpit with three projects, and responsibility for co-leading a research network. That was also the beginning of the science team project, and I still have contacts that I work with from that project and sandpit – so really, it was an incredible experience.

What questions were you trying to answer with the Science Team project?

We were interested in the societal risks facing people in the UK. For example, how do people make decisions about risks related to what they eat, or risks related to climate change? We had a broad remit to develop a multidisciplinary project and our team was diverse – with experts on zoonosis, engineering, and decision-making. We wanted to encompass everyone’s strengths, so we ended up doing work on food safety and flooding. Later, a follow-up project also emerged from that initial work, which looked how people perceive the way that government funds and manages environmental risks.

How did you go about conducting this research, and what were your key findings?

With our project on food safety, we explored the ways in which people process and look for information. We were interested in how people analyze scientific information, and whether they truly process that information or rely on their own heuristics. We found that that individual differences in preferences for analytical and heuristic information processing style have a direct effect on information seeking. This influences the extent to which people seek information. Meanwhile, we found that anxiety contributed to some people choosing to delay decisions, even after they had sought out information. These findings have the potential to shift our understanding of how people make decisions, and the role of emotion in information seeking.

Meanwhile, on our branch of work which focused on what people believe about protecting their homes from flooding, we did a large-scale survey of homeowners. We found while homeowners are willing to protect their homes from flooding and, in many cases, to contribute financially to flood defences,  many people felt they did not have a sense of agency in flood management. From that work, we learned how important it is to trust in information from government and scientists and ensure people really believe that their actions on flood protection can make a difference in protecting their homes. To combat this, there is a need for governments to undertake communication campaigns which nurture a shared sense of responsibility and provide information about domestic flood-protection devices.

Finally, the project exploring policymakers’ decisions and environmental risk was not directly funded by the sandpit but emerged from it. Here, we worked with Defra to explore how the public understood risk, versus their understanding of what policymakers’ thought was important. We surveyed people on topics such as TB in cattle, and GMOs. From that research, we found that there were individual differences in approaches to understanding beliefs about agency and risk. Moreover, while communications from policymakers have the potential to influence lay beliefs, the policy process also needs to be cognizant of public perceptions of risk. We also saw that policymakers who heed lay concerns are likely to make effective, socially acceptable policy decisions.

What have you been working on since finishing your work on the Science Team project?

I have continued to build on the collaborations that came out of the Science Team project, but our more recent work has been focused on organizations and involves new cross-disciplinary teams. For example, we are presently examining organizations as systems of risk which function in uncertain environments. Within that, I have been exploring how individuals and team members,  think about how they manage risk and then how that affects organizational outcomes. This has included work on tensions in teams, differences between the risk exposure of an organization and its strategic position, why organizational risks arise, and how diverse teams manage conflict and disagreement. I’m particularly interested in how organizations understand risk profiling and can develop prospective views of risk rather than waiting for disasters to happen.

Dr Emma Soane has recently written for Forbes Magazine about leadership in riskier times. You can learn more here.