- The Washington Times - Monday, August 20, 2001

LONDON — Who will save us from destruction?
Killer asteroids, doomsday plagues and a morbid fear of something nasty lurking in the lab were once the sole preserve of the feverish minds of science-fiction writers. Recently, however, the British government has announced that it will turn to sci-fi in a big way to anticipate catastrophes.
This sci-fi preoccupation started subtly some years ago, with the Foresight exercise, in which experts conducted crystal-ball-gazing studies to shape national research priorities. Predictions have ranged from wallpaper that changes color at the flick of a switch and voice-controlled kettles to the ability to catch murderers by reading the fading memories of their victims.
Meanwhile, science fiction — in the guise of theoretical risks — began to shape policy. British blood products were banned because of fears — rather than epidemiological evidence — that they transmit the "mad cow" (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) agent. The introduction of genetically-modified (GM) food and crops was slowed despite the lack of hard data on deleterious effects. Computer models of global climate informed environmental policy, despite our imperfect understanding of the Earth's complex weather system.

Looking for trouble
Although the science was speculative, it was at least plausible, whether based on test-tube studies of the BSE agent, experiments on pollen distribution or our ability to model past climate change. But now there are calls for policy-makers to go beyond established science and, last month, the government responded to this challenge.
One of those pushing for change is professor Robin Grove-White of Lancaster University's Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy, who believes the public will only feel safe when the government looks into unanticipated consequences, "unknown unknowns."
What does he mean, exactly?
Mr. Grove-White cites examples where "unknown unknowns" have wrongheaded science: the BSE saga and a succession of earlier environmental issues such as DDT, chlorofluorocarbon compounds (CFCs), fossil fuels, climate change, the ozone layer, and nuclear power.
"The best science of the day failed to anticipate deeply important consequential effects, in advance of society's initial commitment to a specific technology or scientific practice," Mr. Grove-White told a recent meeting at Gresham College, London.
Public fear of "unknown unknowns" is motivated by the loss of confidence in political institutions and top-down scientific "expert" assessment, he said. This reflects more deep, diffuse and analytically elusive concerns than the simple cause-effect relationships — important though these undoubtedly are — upon which official risk assessments focus.
The problem is that unanticipated consequences, "unknown unknowns," and "surprises" lurk beyond the scope of questions raised by scientists, Mr. Grove-White said. Scientists "tend to identify uncertainty with deficiencies of knowledge within known and specifiable parameters, rather than with the more chronic conditions of inevitable ignorance and lack of capacity to imagine future eventualities that may arise with a given technology."
Mr. Grove-White asked one advisory scientist whether it is reasonable to fret over "unknown unknowns" in the case of GM plants. Which unknowns? was the reply. "That's precisely the point. Possibly they could be surprises arising from unforeseen synergistic effects, or from unanticipated social interventions. All people have to go on is analogous historical experience with other technologies."


Contingencies unit formed
He asked the scientist if it would be a good idea to add warnings about "unknown unknowns" to the advice he was giving to government ministers. "No, as scientists, we have to be specific," said the adviser. "We can't proceed on the basis of imaginings from some fevered brow."
Perhaps we can.
Last month, the government announced a new unit that takes science fantasy seriously, or at least as seriously as it can without introducing absurd measures, such as equipping the population with hard hats, lead aprons and biohazard suits. The Civil Contingencies Secretariat will "scan the horizon for emerging destructive challenges," said the Cabinet Office, explaining how 75 emergency planners have been drafted in from the Home Office.
Ironically, the same day that these details emerged, a glorious example of the havoc that can be caused by "unknown unknowns" was unfolding in the government. The department where this was taking place? The Home Office, donor of all those crisis experts.


Concern is sidestepped
The Home Office is introducing a $3.6 billion communication system, known as Airwave, that relies on a frequency that should be avoided, according to a report, because it may cause changes to brain tissue.
Airwave, a collaboration between British Telecommunications (BT) and the police, is being tested by Lancashire police and will eventually become a national, digital mobile radio communications service for all emergency services by 2005. It will boost the speed and security of communication.
Airwave handsets use the European Tetra (Terrestrial Trunk Radio System) standard, which enables up to four users to access a single radio channel simultaneously. Their transmissions are confined to "bursts" at the rate of 17.65 times per second (Hz).
But a report commissioned by the Department of Health, under the chairmanship of professor Sir William Stewart, former government chief scientist and architect of Foresight, found that possible effects of frequencies at or near 16 Hz included the release of calcium from brain tissue. Neurons are sensitive to calcium, which carries out signaling, regulates secretions and other tasks.
Although the Stewart report found no consequences for health, let alone a plausible mechanism by which these frequencies could affect brain tissue, the use of that frequency should be avoided, it concluded in May 2000.
Almost a year later, the Home Office announced that experts had examined Airwave and found "no obvious health risks." The government said Airwave would go ahead on the proposed timetable. After all, the new phones comply with guidelines produced by the National Radiological Protection Board.
Whitehall meetings involving scientists, police representatives and government officials reveal this unknown hazard still troubles the police and the new ministerial team at the Home Office.
The problem is that current safety guidelines are designed to avoid heating effects in the body while the outstanding concerns focus on non-thermal effects — such as calcium release — which have not yet been resolved.

Cancer not the issue
Cancer is probably not a worry, but what if this causes subtle effects on memory and concentration in the police and other emergency services?
A new report is due from the NRPB Advisory Group on Non-Ionizing Radiation. The Defense Evaluation Research Agency and the neuroscientist professor Colin Blakemore of Oxford University, who wrote the relevant section of the Stewart report, have also submitted studies.
But these review existing literature and are unlikely to probe the unknown consequences of the calcium effect. One study that will dig deeper into the effect of 17 Hz radiation will not be finished until next year.
The introduction of Airwave "seems so obviously to contravene a recommendation of Stewart, albeit one hedged with qualifications," said one expert who attended a July crisis meeting, adding that there was a failure in joined-up government.
Most troubling of all, the Airwave safety studies were only commissioned this year. If the work had been under way when Stewart was published, these issues might have been resolved. Few experts expect Airwave to be any riskier than conventional mobile phones. But until more work is done, they can't be sure.
Mr. William, who is also president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is disappointed by the delay, caused in part because his committee was kept in the dark about Airwave.
"All the information that was available was not forthcoming, despite having government and NRPB observers on the committee," said Mr. William, whose precautionary approach has been widely welcomed.
Members of the NRPB who sat on his committee should have been more forthcoming about Airwave's 17Hz frequency. "They never said anything about it," he said.

Warnings not given
Dr. John Stather, deputy director of the NRPB and Stewart committee secretary, commented: "The operators of Tetra were invited to give evidence to the expert group but chose not to."
The Tetra specifications were in fact laid out in Paragraph 4.19 of the Stewart report, an anodyne statement with no discussion of the implications. But there was no hint of those "unknown unknowns."
The government's new disaster team should take note. This is the second major failure in marshalling scientific advice in the past year (following delays in modelling the foot-and-mouth epidemic) and shows that, despite spending over $40 million on the BSE report, Whitehall has yet to learn the lessons of mad cow disease.

More to worry about
Other doomsday scenarios trouble knowledgeable scientists:
* "A global influenza epidemic is guaranteed. The million-dollar questions are when and where. I feel we ought to build up a stock of anti-flu drugs, possibly 5 million doses," said John Oxford, professor of virology at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine.
* "My immediate concern is with rising sea levels, and increase in storminess, along the British coastline. This has had severe effects on coastal communities, and it's something the government needs to focus on," said David Smith, professor of Environmental Science at the University of Coventry.
* "It is now generally accepted that kilometer-size comets and asteroids run into the Earth roughly once per 100,000 years, and that such a collision would result in a global catastrophe, resulting in the deaths of billions of people worldwide, more than 10 million for the U.K. alone," said professor Mark Bailey, director of the Armagh Observatory.


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