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February 2012

Voice of Young Science USA and AAAS

Leonor returns from a busy two week trip of North America and tells us about the start of Voice of Young Science USA and our packed American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting sessions. As requested by the audience at the AAAS meeting she also blogs about her correspondence with the EU Commissioner for Energy and his team after he referred to the situation at Fukushima as the ‘apocalypse’.

Voice of Young Science USA

First stop was Cambridge, Massachusetts, where in collaboration with the Cambridge Science Festival and aided by four brilliant volunteers (Joanna Christodoulou, Johnny Kung, Morgan Thompson and Tina Toni) we ran our first Voice of Young Science workshop. You can read more about the lively discussion and great tips from the panels on the blog of one of the participants.

The workshop marked the start of VoYS USA, with the participants forming part the new network of early career researchers in the USA who will engage in activities to stand up for science in public discussion, whether it’s in the pages of a newspaper or speaking up at a town hall meeting. VoYS members are also keen to clarify the evidence on issues from ‘detox’ to the use of homeopathy for serious diseases, as their past campaigns show.

We’ve got another workshop for early career researchers coming up on 24th April as part of the Cambridge Science Festival, and there’s still time to apply (PDF). I am keen to engage new partners in this work, so if your university or organisation might be willing to support this work in the USA do get in touch.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting

It was then on to Vancouver for the AAAS meeting, where we held three sessions: a “Standing Up for Science” workshop, a discussion on the “Global Challenges to Peer Review in Scientific Publications” and one called “Misreporting Fukushima: A Failure of Science Journalism with Global Repercussions?”

At the session on Monday 20th February the panel of two journalists (Mike Hanlon and Albert Yuan) and two nuclear physicists (Professor Paddy Regan from the University of Surrey and Dr Pieter Doornenbal from RIKEN) debated the reporting of what happened at Fukushima with other members of the international scientific community, policy-makers and journalists. They addressed what information was missed and set out suggestions for making a better job of communicating the science and risks of nuclear energy and the effects of failures in its infrastructure.

During the Fukushima session I shared my correspondence with the EU Commissioner for Energy and his team. Many people asked that I blog about this, so as promised here is the account of my exchanges.

Correspondence with the EU commissioner and his team

On 15th March 2011 just a few days after the Tohoku earthquake, the Commissioner was widely quoted by the international media as saying:

"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."

On 21st March 2011

Shortly after the comments were made, I wrote to the Commissioner to ask him how these comments helped people achieve clarity and understand the risks involved.

On 3rd November 2011

More than seven months later, I received a reply from Peter Faross from the Directorate for Nuclear Energy at the European Commission. He thanks me for my letter to Commissioner Oettinger and says:

“Following the request of the European Council on 25 March 2011 that the safety of all EU nuclear power plants should be reviewed on the basis of a comprehensive risk and safety assessment ("stress tests"), on 24 May 2011, the European Commission and the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) reached agreement on the criteria, methodology and timeframe for carrying out these tests in the EU.” He then gives further details about these tests.

On 14th November 2011

So I wrote back to clarify and asked, “could we have an assurance that a more evidence-based and considered approach to communicating will be adopted in the future?”

On 4th January 2012

I received a response from Massimo Garribba, from the same Directorate. He thanks me for my letter and explains that “the European Commission is currently assessing areas where the existing Euratom nuclear safety legislative framework could be further reinforced” and gives me details of an ongoing consultation.

He also states (bolding is mine):

“In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, the Commission undertook a number of initiatives in the field of nuclear safety. Hence, we prefer to focus on the ongoing and continuing work instead of semantic details.”

On 7th February 2012

So I wrote back to clarify.

“Dear Mr Garribba

Thank you for your reply and the link to the consultation, which we are looking at.

On Tuesday 15th March, the Commissioner said referring to 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."

This was widely covered by the international media. It was in the context of these comments that announcements were made about delays to national nuclear energy programmes. Your Directorate’s response to my letter raising these concerns took seven months and failed to address this point. Your response to my subsequent letter of 14th November, pointing this out, dismisses them as “semantic details”. This is not at all reassuring. In fact, it is a flippant approach to responsibilities for communicating risk.

I ask you again for reassurance that this is not an approach you will continue to adopt and that measures have been put in place to evaluate public communications about risk at the Commission.”

On 14th February 2012

I have received a response from Peter Faross. He thanks me for my letter and assures me that a “comprehensive risk management system exists”. He then refers me to the letters I have already received and informs me that “in accordance with section 4 of the Commission’s Code of Good Administrative Behaviour any further correspondence from you on this subject will be considered repetitive, and will not receive a reply.”

As I have been “sectioned 4'd” the Commission does not have to read any further correspondence on this matter from me. I can only hope that I am not alone in thinking that the Commission’s communication of risk and energy policy should be evidence based and taken rather more seriously. The Commissioner can be contacted by people who haven’t been section 4’d at: 

Günther Oettinger
European Commissioner for Energy
B - 1049 Brussels

Other ways to get in touch with the Commissioner can be found on this website.


For more information, you can read the tweets about the Voice of Young Science workshop, the AAAS meeting session on peer review and the AAAS session on Fukushima on Storify.