PUBLISHED:May 27, 2016

At the intersection of science and society

Jonathan Wiener

Science & Society research groups

  • Health Policy
  • Environmental Policy
  • Policy & Health 

Professor Jonathan Wiener has spent most of his career at the intersection of science and society. An expert in risk analysis and regulatory governance, he is at the forefront of efforts to anticipate and resolve tensions — and solutions — posed by scientific and technological innovation.

In his 1995 book, Risk vs. Risk, Wiener and his co-author John Graham provided the first analytical framework of its kind for dealing with “risk-risk tradeoffs” — in which an intervention to reduce one risk may unintentionally increase other risks.

“We live in a world of multiple risks, but our policymaking typically addresses one risk at a time. We have to change our thinking and policy decision frameworks to assess multiple important risks and how they interact,” says Wiener. He explains, by way of example, that reducing carbon dioxide emissions to address global warming, such as by shifting from coal to natural gas, could increase the production of other greenhouse gases such as methane.

Wiener co-directs Duke’s Rethinking Regulation program (based at the Kenan Institute for Ethics), has been president of the Society for Risk Analysis, and is a member of the Scientific and Technical Council of the International Risk Governance Council (IR GC), as well as the Faculty Governance Committee of Duke’s Science & Society Initiative. He is working with Professor Nita Farahany and other Science & Society scholars to research approaches to “adaptive regulation” of evolving innovations such as biotechnology and self-driving cars. He is also co-editor, with his Rethinking Regulation colleagues Ed Balleisen, Lori Bennear and Kimberly Krawiec, of Policy Shock, a forthcoming book on how crisis events reshape regulation – and how regulation can learn from crises – including oil spills, nuclear accidents, and financial crashes. The group presented this research at a 2014 conference at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris.

“So many issues in bioethics and science policy are nested in an environment of uncertainty and risk,” says Science & Society Deputy Director Michael Waitzkin. “How do you make decisions and formulate policies when the facts are not fully known and the risks cannot be accurately foreseen? Jonathan Wiener’s work on risk analysis has brought an exceedingly valuable and useful perspective to our MA students as they grapple with these issues.”

Climate change, arguably one of the greatest risks facing humanity, is a problem on which Wiener has worked for three decades; while serving in government, he helped negotiate the first climate treaty in 1992, and in 2014 he was a co-author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chapter on “International Cooperation” which emphasized that climate change represents a classic “tragedy of the commons” in which multiple actors overuse shared resources with damaging consequences for all.

In a new article, “The Tragedy of the Uncommons: On the Politics of Apocalypse,” forthcoming in the journal Global Policy, Wiener argues that as societies learn to overcome “tragedies of the commons,” they should pay greater attention to rare extreme global catastrophic risks, such as a large asteroid hitting the earth or an alien microbe wiping out terrestrial life.

“These rare global catastrophic risks present the strongest case in favor of precaution, and the main reason is not only uncertainty, or large losses, but the inability to learn from the event,” says Wiener. “In the past, regulatory systems have improved over time as we learn from experience and crises. But for extremely rare catastrophic risks, we lack the experience to motivate responses, and the impact may be so massive that it numbs our psyches and destroys our institutions, so that we wouldn’t be able to recover and learn to improve our policies afterwards.” Still, as he has argued regarding lesser evils, Wiener cautions that policies to deal with these remote mega-risks will need to avoid misplacing priorities or inducing catastrophic riskrisk tradeoffs.