Panel 112 - Risk, Uncertainty, Unknowns, and Nonsense — Engagement with the Public on Radiation, Nuclear, and Climate

Conference Day: 
Day 1 - November 13th 2019
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Risk, Uncertainty, Unknowns, and Nonsense — Engagement with the Public on Radiation, Nuclear, and Climate

Organizers: The Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy and Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy

Speakers: Bethany Penn, Strategic Research Officer, Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy; Anne T. Ballantyne, Strategic Research Planning and Facilitation Officer, Office of the Vice-Dean Research, Scholarly and Artistic Work, College of Arts and Science, University of Saskatchewan; Larissa Shasko, MPP Candidate, Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy; Michaela Neetz, MPP Candidate, Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy; Holly Laasko, Research Associate, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories

Moderator: Margot Hurlbert, Tier 1, Canada Research Chair, Climate Change, Energy and Sustainability Policy, Centre for the Study of Science and Innovation Policy, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina


  1. It is important to distinguish between low-energy, non-ionizing radiation, which is mostly benign, and high-energy ionizing radiation that can cause physiological damage.

  2. Most of our exposure comes in the form of low-dose radiation (LDR), which by definition should have a limited effect on human health, although research in this area has been ongoing for decades.

  3. Specific definitions of LDR make it possible to assess individuals’ exposure under given conditions, such as flying in a commercial aircraft at altitudes where atmospheric protection is reduced or undergoing a medical-imaging procedure that employs radioisotopes.

  4. As our understanding of biology expands into areas such as epigenetics, questions have emerged about the effect that radiation might have on these newly discovered physiological interactions.

Suggested Actions:

  1. Researchers must continue to explore the impact of radiation on living systems, since we continue to reveal new aspects of these systems and how their healthy functioning could be compromised.

  2. Regulators must support ongoing research into the health effects of radiation in order to have the information necessary to draw practical conclusions about acceptable exposures.

  3. Policymakers should make an important distinction between the way in which scientists engage in an inquiry with specific technical objectives and the public expectation that such inquiries will yield a much more general contribution to the notion of safety.

  4. In discussions of the impact or management of radiation, communication skills will be essential to gaining and maintaining the trust of any intended audience, whose interests and needs must be identified in order to shape effective messages about complex topics.

  5. Scientists should understand that the public response to their work will be based on more than their formal publications, which could well be inaccessible to most people, but will instead depend on other sources, including social media outlets that may be tainted with misinformation or disinformation.