Making decisions (balancing benefits and risks)

Decisions about the use of science and technology are made by:

  • ourselves as individuals
  • governments
  • local authorities

Public regulation can be introduced to reduce risk.

To make a decision, people need to take account of the benefits and risks to individuals and groups of people.

Accepting risk

People are more willing to accept a risk if:

  • the decision is their choice rather than something that has been imposed upon them
  • the effects are short term rather than long term
  • there are strong benefits to them

Interpretation of risk - Higher

How people think about a risk can be different to the calculated risk. For example, people may think of the risk of flying as being much higher than calculations show. Or they may think cycling is less risk than is actually calculated.

In general people tend to overestimate the risk of things that are unfamiliar, invisible or long term.

Balancing benefit and risk

When making a decision about the introduction of science and technology, the benefits and risks should be considered, as well as who is affected, how and why.

For example, what are the benefits and risks of vaccinating children against measles, mumps and rubella.

WhatReduction in diseaseEach child has a low risk of becoming sick after the vaccination
WhoAll or almost all children in the UKAll children vaccinated
How/whyIf all or almost all individuals are vaccinated against a disease it is unlikely to spread (herd immunity)A vaccine introduces a small and usually ineffective version of the disease into the child's body to cause an immune response

To make the decision on what to do, identify some possible actions:

  • possible action 1 - offer vaccination free of charge to all children in the UK
  • possible action 2 - offer vaccination free of charge only to children in affected areas

Each option will have a different balance of benefit and risk. To balance the benefits and risks of each action consider the level of benefit compared with the level of risk.

Level of risk and level of benefit in a table.High levels of benefit to low levels of risk are the best balance. Weak benefits and high levels of risk are a poor balance
  • possible action 1 - has a high level of benefit and a higher level of risk
  • possible action 2 - has a weaker benefit but a lower level of risk

The number of people who benefit compared with the number of people at risk:

Number of people at risk and who benefit

The preferred balance is to benefit many people and put only a few people at risk.

The least favourable balance is to benefit only a few people and put many people at risk.

In this example, vaccinating all or nearly all children in the UK benefits them all. It also puts all that receive the vaccine at risk, so the situation is fairly balanced. This is not always the case.