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 on 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 perceive (think of) the risk of flying as being much higher than calculations show. Or they may think cycling is less risky than is actually calculated.

In general people tend to over-estimate 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 chlorinating the water supply to a village water pump? The table shows some examples.

WhatReduction in waterborne diseaseChlorine is toxic to humans
WhoAll residents of the village who are able to access the pumpAll villagers will be using water from the pump
How/whyVillagers will no longer need to drink water from the river, which may contain harmful disease-causing microorganismsIf too much chlorine is added to the water, villagers may be exposed to unsafe levels of chlorine

To make the decision on what to do identify some possible actions. Each option will have a different balance of benefit and risk.

Possible action 1: Supply chlorination equipment and chemicals to the village.

Possible action 2: Train some members of the village in the use of the chlorination equipment and chemicals when it is supplied to the village. Carry out regular checks on chlorine levels in the water.

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.

Possible action 1: has a high level of benefit and a high level of risk.

Possible action 2: has a high level of 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, the chlorinated water benefits the whole village. It also puts the whole village at risk, so the situation is fairly balanced. This is not always the case.