Evidence matters to the public

Join us on 1st November at Parliament to make the case

Learn more

What Works Global Summit. Register now.

Putting evidence at the heart of policy and practice. 26th - 28th September.

Learn more

Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

Learn more

'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

Learn more

News and Comment

Open letter to David Willetts

15 March 2012

Scientists write to Science Minister on European Commission's "irresponsible" public communication about radiation following Fukushima.

In a year since the EU Energy Commissioner described Fukushima as the “apocalypse”, the Commission has refused to correct its presentation or answer questions about its use of evidence in risk communication.  The scientists and science communication groups, who were at the fore of public discussions about the Fukushima crisis last March, have now asked the Science Minister to intervene.

On Tuesday 15th March 2011, EU Commissioner for Energy Gunther Oettinger said of the situation at Fukushima: “There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen. Practically everything is out of control. I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come.”

The apocalypse statement was reported by many people to the UK public education trust Sense About Science, which works with thousands of scientists to respond to public questions. It wrote to the Energy Commissioner last March to request clarification and to seek reassurance that future risk communication would be based on evidence. The Commission took eight months to respond and then repeatedly refused to address the question, referring flippantly to “semantic details”.

In an open letter to David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, the scientists and science communication groups ask him to establish that evidence-based and responsible risk communication is taken seriously by the European Commission. They want the Minister to press the Commission to “adopt higher standards with respect to future public communication about energy”. 

See the summary of correspondence with the EU Commission.

See the letter from scientists below, and read David Willetts' response.

 

Letter to David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science

15th March 2012

Dear Mr Willetts

All of us were involved in the public discussions about nuclear energy and radiation that followed the Fukushima incident this time last year. We believe that whatever the energy mix countries adopt, the public and policy discussions should be based on evidence and sound science. 

We are therefore deeply worried by the bizarre approach to risk communication that appears to have been adopted by the EU Commission’s Directorate for Energy, which has now reached such a position of obstruction and irresponsibility that we would ask you to intervene.

On Tuesday 15th March 2011, EU Commissioner Gunther Oettinger said of the situation at Fukushima: “There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen. Practically everything is out of control. I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come.” Unfortunately, these words were based on interpretation of international press reports and not on any scientific analysis. Unsurprisingly, the words were reported around the globe and were cited in reports of several countries’ plans to drop nuclear energy programmes, again before a proper scientific analysis was conducted. This knee-jerk and overly politicised approach to communication of energy risks also undermined more considered and evidence-based efforts, including those of the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

The apocalypse statement was reported by many people to the UK public education trust Sense About Science, which works with thousands of scientists to respond to public questions. It wrote to the Energy Commissioner last March to request clarification and to seek reassurance that future risk communication would be based on evidence. The Commission took eight months to respond and then repeatedly refused to address the question, referring flippantly to “semantic details”, as you can see in the enclosed summary and copies of the correspondence. It has finally responded with a Section 4 statement that it is not obliged to respond to further requests!

Could you now take this matter up with the EU Commission? Would you establish that evidence-based and responsible risk communication is taken seriously and that the Commission will adopt higher standards with respect to future public communication about energy, nuclear and otherwise?

There are pressing discussions about energy choices, their risks and global impacts, and we should be entitled to expect a more mature and responsible approach from European policy makers.

Yours sincerely

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE, Professor of Physics and Professor of the Public Engagement in Science, University of Surrey   

Professor Wade Allison, Emeritus Professor of Physics, University of Oxford

Professor Paul Hardaker, Chair Elect, Sense About Science

Professor Patrick Regan, Professor of Nuclear Physics, University of Surrey

Dr Simon Singh MBE, science writer

Professor Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science, University of Portsmouth

Professor Malcolm Sperrin, medical scientist

Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, University of Cambridge

Professor Gerry A Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology, Imperial College London

Professor Richard Wakeford, Dalton Nuclear Institute and Visiting Professor of Epidemiology, University of Manchester

Media Coverage 

Paul Jump, The Times Higher Education ‘Apocalypse’ row: scientists attack European Commission over Fukushima overreaction


< Back