Science & Environment

Emergency plans 'need scientists'

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Media caption"We didn't expect volcanic ash," said chief scientific adviser Prof Sir John Beddington says

The government should take more notice of scientists when deciding how to respond to emergencies, MPs say.

In a report, the Commons Science and Technology Committee highlighted last April's volcanic ash cloud - which grounded thousands of flights - as an example of poor risk assessment.

The risk of such disruption had been been discounted only a year earlier.

Officials "got it wrong" in failing to predict the impact, the government's chief scientific adviser told the BBC.

Professor Sir John Beddington said ash should have been considered given the "relative frequency of volcanic events in Iceland".

'Stark example'

In their report, the MPs call for greater involvement in emergency planning by the government's chief scientist and his team of experts, a new independent committee to advise the cabinet on risks and more openness.

Image caption The volcanic eruption in 2010 caused the biggest shut down of European airspace since World War II

The Icelandic volcanic eruption in April 2010 closed off UK airspace for more than a week, causing huge disruption to passengers and the airline industry as well as costing the UK economy hundreds of millions of pounds.

It caught the government unawares and research had to be hurriedly carried out to find out when it might be safe for planes to fly. And volcanologists had known for some time that this was an accident waiting to happen.

Committee chairman Labour MP Andrew Miller said: "That's not good enough. The role of government must be to plan for eventualities that could occur and then having the right mechanism in place to deal with events when they do occur."

Prof Beddington said: "We didn't expect volcanic ash - that wasn't on our risk assessment. It probably should have been when you look at the relative frequency of volcanic events in Iceland. We should have had that on the risk register".

When asked whether the the government had got it wrong over volcanic ash, Prof Beddington replied: "We failed to predict it was a likely event - absolutely."

The House of Commons science and technology committee examined the use of scientific advice and evidence in national emergencies. The MPs said that the Iceland volcano was a "stark example" of the lack of scientific input in risk assessment.

The risk of disruption to aviation caused by a natural disaster was dropped from the assessment process in 2009, despite warnings from scientists.

"The broader Earth science community had been predicting events around Iceland for some considerable time," Mr Miller said.

"That should have alerted the Civil Aviation Authority at a much, much earlier stage and we should have planned for that event."

Asteroid impact

In particular, MPs were concerned that neither the government's chief scientific adviser nor his team of chief scientists, were involved in evaluating risks to the nation.

This process is known as the National Risk Assessment and is carried out by the Cabinet Office, which oversees all other government departments, in order to develop contingency plans for national emergencies, such as severe weather, pandemic flu and so-called cyber attacks to the country's computing infrastructure.

"The current system is flawed in many ways - not least of which is the NRA, the basis on which Cabinet Office planning is put together, doesn't include the right people," Mr Miller said.

"This is why we are calling for the chief scientist to be based inside the Cabinet Office. And his network of experts - both inside government and beyond should be used to pre-plan (potential emergencies) to a much, much wider extent."

The committee says that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond's announcement in December 2010 that Prof Beddington would look into future weather planning assumptions, following a spell of severe winter weather, suggested that he had little or no input to the risk assessments that must have taken place on severe weather.

Prof Beddington said he was involved in national risk assessments through his officials who are on relevant committees. But he agreed that more should be done to assess the impact of events which, though unlikely to happen, could have catastrophic effects if they were to occur. Such events include the impact of an asteroid on Earth.

"Where I think there is a problem is where there are unlikely events. One of the exercises I've started is to get a group of scientists together to look at low probability, high impact events and ask the question are we missing something?"

The MPs also said that the Scientific Advisory Groups in Emergencies (Sage), set up to advise government during emergencies, were "unnecessarily secretive" enabling them to operate as they pleased during an emergency. The report calls for greater transparency so that the advice of the expert groups can be put under greater scrutiny.

Concerns over how risk was communicated to the public during the 2009-10 swine flu pandemic were raised in the report. It highlighted the sensationalised media reporting about the projected deaths from swine flu and questions the use of the concept of "reasonable worst case scenario".

And the report called for the government to increase contributions to the European Space Agency's Programme to assess the risks from solar flares to satellites.

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