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. People often overestimate the risk of unfamiliar things (such as skydiving) and things that have an invisible effect (like ionising radiation).

The real risk may be very different from the perceived risk - the risk that someone thinks is there.

  • Nuclear radiation is invisible, and sounds threatening to many people. This makes the risk seem worse than something that can be seen, and which is more familiar.
  • Many people do not realise that nuclear radiation has always been part of our environment.
  • People are afraid that irradiated food is itself radioactive, even though this is not true.

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:

Although aircraft accidents usually result in many deaths and are widely reported in the media, air travel is really, the safest form of transport.

Similarly, the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima resulted in many deaths, but in reality the likelihood of dying from a nuclear accident is very low - in fact even cycling is more dangerous.

As with most activities, there are risks as well as benefits and it's important that the benefits outweigh the risks.