Society for Risk Analysis Europe Conference in Maastricht

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Last week, the 24th annual SRA-E conference was held in Maastricht, the Netherlands. The conference was organised by the Maastricht University – Science, Technology and Society Studies (MUSTS) research centre of the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

The special theme of the conference was “Science, Policy and Society – Bridging the gap between risk and science.” We chose this topic to emphasise the growing importance of the science, policy and society nexus for the risk community. We paid special attention to including the perspectives of scientists working on risk concepts and applications, experts advising policy on risk as well as policy makers making decisions involving risks.

The result of this focus was lots of stimulating debates during the many interesting parallel sessions and plenary talks.

We already look forward to next year’s conference in Bath, England on 20-22 June 2016.

For more information on the Maastricht conference, please visit or check out the Abstractbook SRA-Europe Conference Maastricht 2015.


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“Soms is er geen ja of nee, soms weten we het niet, erken dat ook” Observant Online

Tessa Fox en ik vertellen over ons onderzoek naar risico’s en onzekerheden

“Soms is er geen ja of nee, soms weten we het niet, erken dat ook” Observant Online.

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PhD thesis: Engaging with Risks. Citizens, science and policy in mobile phone mast siting controversies

My dissertation offers a contribution to answering one of the most pressing questions of our knowledge society: how do we deal with possible risks and uncertainties from new technologies? Engaging with risks traces the governance of one such complex, controversial and multi-actor risk question: concerns about health risks from the siting of mobile phone masts in the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium). Based on multi-method social scientific research, the book moves beyond the portrayal of citizen engagement in siting conflicts as disruptive, hostile and frustrating and offers an analysis of siting controversies as healthy signs of democracy. The book is relevant to researchers, policy makers, scientists and anyone interested in the dynamic relationship between citizens, science and policy in decisions about risks.

You can download my PhD thesis by clicking on the cover picture.

Engaging with risks book cover

Hermans MA (2014) Engaging with risks. PhD thesis, Maastricht University

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Rapport Rathenau Instituut – Wetenschap als strijdtoneel

Op basis van mijn promotieonderzoek hebben Marjolein van Asselt, Wim Passchier en ik een bijdrage geleverd aan het Rathenau rapport over publieke controverses rond wetenschap en beleid.

Link naar de Nederlandstalige versie van het rapport Wetenschap als strijdtoneel. Publieke controverses rond wetenschap en beleid

Link naar de uitgebreide casebeschrijvingen, waaronder onze casus “Elektromagnetische straling zendmasten”

Links naar Engelstalige versie Contested science. Public controversies about science and policy 

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Symposium on siting controversies

Last June, I attended the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA) Europe conference in Trondheim, Norway. Together with Marjolein van Asselt, I organised a symposium on siting controversies with several speakers from Finland, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Poland on Carbon Capture and Storage, nuclear waste management, mobile phone masts and the role of experts. I invited prof. Judith Petts from Southampton University in the U.K. as commentator.

I also received the prize for best student paper and a travel grant from the SRA for my paper and presentation The struggle for knowledge: The dynamics of citizen engagement in mobile phone mast siting controversies. I’m very grateful for the support in attending the conference.

Trondheim was very beautiful


See below for the abstract of the symposium on siting controversies:

Understanding the societal dynamics around risk: Learning from siting controversies

Technological infrastructures, ranging from disposal, storage and production facilities to critical components such as base stations for wireless communication technology, need to be placed. The search for such geographical sites often leads to opposition from the local community – frequently described as NIMBY-ism, even though academics have increasingly called for more critical interpretations. This panel takes up this call by acknowledging that siting controversies are not just about the local community level – which is often the most visible and adamant layer – but it stretches into other levels of social organization too:  regional, national, European and increasingly global.

This panel aims at bringing together academics interested in exploring the societal debates and processes around siting controversies, with a particular focus on how risks and uncertainties are conceptualized, assessed, dealt with and challenged. What actor networks are formed and in which way(s)? And although it has become something of a truism to call for public engagement in siting practices, it remains to be seen how this is implemented and what can be learned from the experiences. Presentations will approach these interrelated questions from different theoretical backgrounds, allowing for a comparison across technological domains and various regions in Europe. More understanding of the multi-level societal dynamics around risks can thus provide insights in how to effectively deal with the potentially controversial issue of siting of technological infrastructures.

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Inzichten over maatschappelijike controverses rondom masten voor mobiele telefonie

In het oktober nummer van het Magazine Nationale veiligheid en crisisbeheersing van het Ministerie van Veiligheid en Justitie heb ik samen met Marjolein van Asselt een artikel gepubliceerd over mijn promotieonderzoek.

Link naar website van magazine (artikel te vinden op pp. 29-31) of rechtstreeks naar pdf magazine























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Publication – Chapter ‘Risk Governance’ in Handbook of Risk Theory

Title: Risk Governance

Authors: Hermans, M.A., Fox., T. & van Asselt, M.B.A.

Abstract: Recently, the notion of risk governance has been introduced in risk theory. This chapter aims to unravel this new concept by exploring its genesis and analytical scope. We understand the term ‘‘risk governance’’ as the various ways in which many actors, individuals, and institutions – public and private – deal with risks surrounded by uncertainty, complexity and/or ambiguity. It includes, but also extends beyond, the three conventionally recognized elements of risk analysis (risk assessment, risk management, and risk communication). Risk governance emphasizes that not all risks can be calculated as a function of probability and effect. We argue that risk governance is more than only the critical study of complex, interacting networks in which choices and decisions are made around risks; it should also be understood as a set of normative principles which can inform all relevant actors of society on how to deal responsibly with risks. In this chapter, we take stock of the current body of scholarly ideas and proposals on the governance of contemporary risks along the lines of three principles: the communication and inclusion principle, the integration principle, and the reflection principle.

READ the chapter Risk Governance – link to pdf

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Research visit at Centre de Recerca en Governance del Risc – Barcelona

Two weeks ago I visited the Research Centre of Risk Governance of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona for two days. I was warmly welcomed by dr. Anna Garcia i Hom and Joaquin Rodríguez Álvarez, researchers at GRISC. The aim of the visit was to get to know the research at GRISC and present our research team at Maastricht University. At GRISC, a team of researchers is also working on the controversies around the siting of mobile phone base stations. I was very interested in exchanging ideas about this topic. We discussed our mutual interests at length during two working sessions.

During my stay I also gave a presentation to the students of the EPSI (School of Prevention and integral safety) about my PhD project.

For more information on GRISC visit

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Prize for 50th research question

Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences (KNAW) competition ‘The 50th question of the Dutch science agenda’


‘How can we deal with possible risks from scientific and technological innovations?’ With this question and accompanying essay Tessa Fox, Marijke Hermans and Marjolein van Asselt won the competition for the 50th question of the Dutch Science Agenda from the KNAW.

Early 2011 the KNAW published a Dutch Science Agenda with 49 interesting and pressing research questions that span the different scientific disciplines, from mathematics to history. The Academy was looking for a 50th question to complete the agenda and asked her members of the Young Academy (of which Marjolein van Asselt is a member) to send in the questions they felt were lacking. Tessa, Marijke and Marjolein thought an interdisciplinary question that captures the heart of many public debates would be a valuable contribution.

The bottom-line of the essay is the argument that innovations create uncertainties about possible risks that are often not calculable with modern technical and scientific methods. Instead of a naïve faith in science as the only legitimate and right partner in solving risk questions, interdisciplinary empirical research (risk governance) argues that in cases of risk controversies it is important to acknowledge uncertainties in order to sensibly deal with them.

The official ceremony took place on Monday 26 September in the Trippenhuis inAmsterdamwhere they received a cheque of 5000 euro from the KNAW president Robbert Dijkgraaf.


Article in de Observant:

The 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands

Learn to live with uncertainty

29-9-2011 –

How to deal with potential risks of technological and scientific innovations?

Radiation from radio/TV/mobile telephone masts, the chemical composition of children’s toys, genetically modified food, underground storage of CO2. All examples of technological innovations that have led to social unrest, to discussions about risks and safety.

Policymakers then turn to scientists and ask whether it is a threat to public health or not. But they cannot give the answer, because neither the dangers nor the safety can be determined beyond doubt. In short, how should we deal with this uncertainty?

Marijke Hermans and Tessa Fox, two Ph.D. candidates at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, are both doing research on this issue. Hermans is focusing more on social unrest, such as in the case of the installation of mobile phone base stations. She visits cities in Flanders and the Netherlands and talks to citizens, policymakers and journalists.

“At the end of the nineties, governments felt that these base stations had to be installed, no matter what. The only question that was asked was whether they were safe or not. That the stations would not be welcome, could have been expected after the protests by those living near nuclear power stations. Nevertheless, the authorities never wondered how to deal with the involvement of local citizens and other stakeholders. It is advisable not to limit issues like these to a merely scientific matter. Other target groups should also be involved.”

Fox focuses on the policymakers and their choices, for example on the basis of the case of the polycarbonate baby bottles containing the chemical compound BPA. When heated, the compound could end up in the milk and affect the nervous system. Although researchers do not agree on the risks, the European Commission has banned the bottles (since 1 March).

“Was that smart,” Fox wonders. “According to a large group of scientists, nothing is wrong. And maybe the alternatives that come on the market will have a much greater degree of uncertainty. The EU commissioner says: ‘Don’t worry, the bottles are safe now.’ Is this a good strategy or are you creating the mere appearance of certainty? It may well be that the bottle manufacturer concerned is doing a better job. They put the current state of affairs about the uncertainty on their website. A good example of acknowledgment.”

It may take some getting used to, the researchers say, but still: “We have to learn to live with uncertainty.”

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has listed the 50 most important research questions for the Netherlands. The 50th is the result of a competition, which was won by two UM researchers.

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Persberichten KNAW Wetenschapsprijs

UM-onderzoekers winnen KNAW-prijsvraag

29-9-2011 – Observant

Twee promovendi van de faculteit cultuur- en maatschappijwetenschappen, Marijke Hermans en Tessa Fox, hebben ‘De vijftigste wetenschapsvraag’ gewonnen, een eenmalige prijsvraag van de Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen. Afgelopen maandag ontvingen ze in het Amsterdamse Trippenhuis een cheque ter waarde van 5000 euro.

De prijsvraag volgt uit de (eerste) Nederlandse Wetenschapsagenda, een lijst van de KNAW met 49 vragen en thema’s waaraan Nederlandse academici een grote bijdrage kunnen leveren. De Akademie riep onderzoekers op om de vijftigste vraag te bedenken. De inzending van Hermans en Fox (begeleid door Marjolein van Asselt) won: Hoe moeten we omgaan met mogelijke risico’s van technologische en wetenschappelijke innovaties?

De twee jonge onderzoekers analyseren complexe risicodossiers zoals de straling bij telefoonmasten of de chemische samenstelling van babyflessen. In beide casussen, waarin de bevolking, wetenschappers en beleidsmakers een hoofdrol spelen, kunnen noch de gevaren noch de veiligheid onomstotelijk worden vastgesteld. De vraag is dan: hoe om te gaan met deze onzekerheid?



Leren leven met onzekerheid

29-9-2011 – Observant

De KNAW heeft een agenda samengesteld van 49 belangrijke onderzoeksvragen. Elke week leggen wij een UM-wetenschapper een vraag voor. Deze keer: promovendi Marijke Hermans en Tessa Fox die antwoorden geven op de vraag: Hoe moeten we omgaan met mogelijke risico’s van technologische en wetenschappelijke innovaties?

Straling van zendmasten, de chemische samenstelling van kinderspeelgoed, genetisch gemodificeerd voedsel, ondergrondse opslag van CO2. Allemaal voorbeelden van technologische vernieuwingen die geleid hebben tot maatschappelijke onrust, tot discussies over risico’s en veiligheid.

Beleidsmakers wenden zich dan tot wetenschappers met de vraag: is het een gevaar voor de volksgezondheid, of niet? Maar die moeten het antwoord schuldig blijven, want noch de gevaren noch de veiligheid kunnen onomstotelijk worden vastgesteld. Kortom, hoe moeten we omgaan met deze onzekerheid?

Marijke Hermans en Tessa Fox, twee promovendi van de Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, doen allebei onderzoek hiernaar. Hermans richt zich met name op de maatschappelijke onrust, onder meer bij de installatie van telefoonmasten. Ze bezoekt steden in Vlaanderen en Nederland en praat met bewoners, beleidsmakers, journalisten.

“Eind jaren negentig vond de overheid dat de masten er moesten komen, hoe dan ook. De enige vraag die werd gesteld: zijn ze veilig of niet? Dat de masten niet welkom waren, kon men bevroeden na protesten van omwonenden van bijvoorbeeld kerncentrales. Toch heeft men zich nooit afgevraagd hoe de inspraak van burgers en andere belanghebbenden te regelen. Het is raadzaam om zo’n vraagstuk niet te vernauwen tot een wetenschappelijke kwestie. Betrek er ook andere doelgroepen bij.”

Fox richt zich op de beleidsmakers en hun keuzes, onder meer via de casus van de polycarbonaat babyflesjes met de chemische stof BPA. Bij verhitting zou de stof in de melk kunnen belanden en het zenuwstelsel kunnen aantasten. Hoewel wetenschappers het over de risico’s niet eens zijn, heeft de Europese Commissie de flesjes met BPA toch verboden (sinds 1 maart).

“Is dat slim”, vraagt Fox zich af. “Volgens een grote groep wetenschappers is er niks aan de hand. En misschien komen er alternatieven op de markt waarbij de onzekerheid nog groter is. De EU-commissaris zegt: ‘Maak je geen zorgen, de flesjes zijn nu veilig.’ Is dit een goede strategie of creëer je louter schijnzekerheid? Misschien doet een van de fabrikanten van de bewuste flesjes het beter. Die gaf op de website de actuele stand van zaken over de onzekerheid. Een mooi voorbeeld van de erkenning daarvan.”

Het is misschien wennen, zeggen de onderzoekers, maar toch: “We moeten leren leven met onzekerheid.”

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