Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Science communication

Life and death, and money

Mel Auker is an Earth Sciences PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. A mathematician by trade, Mel’s PhD uses numerical approaches to better understand past, present, and future global volcanic hazard and risk.

The recent tragedy at Sinabung volcano, Indonesia, bought some interesting thoughts to light amongst some members of the volcanology group at Bristol. There were comments regarding the decision by the authorities to allow people to return to their homes (you can see James Hickey’s perspective here). In an ideal world, I’m sure we are all agreed that the risks of volcanoes and their eruptions would be fully mitigated, and fatalities and financial losses would be zero.

Sadly, there is no such ideal. The reality is one of limited resources and a need to balance the benefits and costs of risk reduction to society. Personally, I find the concept of attaching a value to a life a difficult one. But policy makers calculate the Value of a Statistical Life (VSL) in order to make rational risk-reduction decisions at the societal level. The VSL is defined as the value an individual places on a marginal change in their likelihood of death, i.e. the price an individual is willing to pay for a small decrease in the likelihood of their death. In theory, the VSL could be calculated as follows:

“Suppose each person in a sample of 100,000 people were asked how much he or she would be willing to pay for a reduction in their individual risk of dying of 1 in 100,000, or 0.001%, over the next year. Since this reduction in risk would mean that we would expect one fewer death among the sample of 100,000 people over the next year on average, this is sometimes described as “one statistical life saved.” Now suppose that the average response to this hypothetical question was $100. Then the total dollar amount that the group would be willing to pay to save one statistical life in a year would be $100 per person × 100,000 people, or $10 million. This is what is meant by the value of a statistical life.” US Environmental Protection Agency

The price of a life

What price on a life? Image credit: Mel Auker

In practice, VSL calculations are often based on the payments people receive for risks they voluntarily take in their day-to-day life, by examining the wages paid in different jobs. After controlling for all the other factors that may affect wages (such as location and skill level), the remaining wage variation can be attributed to compensation for the risk of death. This value can be used in the same way as in the example above to calculate the VSL. Another similar method involves comparing the price people are willing to pay for goods of differing safety standards, such as cars.

The outcomes of VSL calculations are varied, but Miller (2000)1 presents a review of 39 US and 7 UK studies and produces data-based estimates of $3.472m and $2.281m in 1995 US dollars for these countries, respectively. There are insufficient data for Indonesia, but using a series of assumptions and proxy values, Miller estimates a Indonesian VSL in 1995 US dollars of only $0.16m.

These values are obviously approximate and somewhat outdated, but nevertheless provide rather haunting food for thought when considering how much should be invested in risk reduction at the societal level across the world.

Whilst the VSL concept can seem alien and cold, the events at Sinabung and the circumstances of the deaths – people had returned to check on their homes and possessions – perhaps suggest that those facing such risky situations may subconsciously perform a VSL-type calculation. For those who stand to lose everything in an eruption, it seems the line between life or livelihood is incredibly blurred.

[1] Miller, TR (2000) Variation between Countries in VSL. Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, Vol 34 No.2

Science Snap (#18): Tragic Sinabung Eruption

James Hickey is a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. A geophysicist and volcanologist by trade, his PhD project is focussed on attempting to place constraints on volcanic unrest using integrated geodetic modelling.

Last Saturday (1st February 2014) an eruption at Sinabung volcano in Indonesia claimed the lives of 14 people. That death toll has since risen to 16, and could rise further as people battle in hospital with severe burns and other wounds.

A local villager runs from the eruption of Sinabung volcano in Indonesia. Image credit: BBC News.

A local villager runs from the eruption of Sinabung volcano in Indonesia. Image credit: BBC News.

The volcano has been erupting since September 2013 and over 30,000 people have been evacuated from their homes. The Friday before the latest eruption, anxious citizens were allowed back to check on their homes. Many had been sneaking back into the exclusion zone anyway. And herein lies the danger. Despite the obvious inconvenience of being away from home for such a period of time, exclusion zones and evacuations are there for protection and safety. This tragic event is the result of people becoming too complacent around a volcano with a prolonged eruption, and locals not fully understanding the risks associated with such situations.

Hopefully this will serve as a timely reminder, to both locals and scientists. The perennial need for better communication between scientists, locals and civil protection authorities isn’t going away.

“I’m a scientist, get me out of here…!”

James Hickey is a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. A geophysicist and volcanologist by trade, his PhD project is focussed on attempting to place constraints on volcanic unrest using integrated geodetic modelling.

Having had just over a week to recover I can finally begin to look back on what were two incredible weeks of “I’m a scientist, get me out here” excitement!

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To the uninitiated, think academia meets X-Factor in a science communication and outreach fiesta. The premise is simple – school students ask science questions, scientists answer science questions, school students vote for their favourite scientist. But when it starts it really kicks off!

The build-up was sedate enough, starting with a profile page to populate with information about how you live your life as a scientist. Then the Friday before the event went live, the first set of questions came through – ‘do you like exploring volcanoes?’, ‘how close can you get to a volcano before it burns you?’ and everyone’s favourite, ‘why do volcanoes erupt’ amongst many (and I mean many) others.

The students can ‘ASK’ questions whenever they like by submitting a post on the website, but the real fun starts when the live ‘CHAT’ sessions begin. 30 minutes in a web chat room answering questions in real-time. But these kids are quick, REALLY quick! And there are lots of them – a class at a time – all asking question upon question without waiting for a reply first. Needless to say I am now much faster at typing!

Attempting to muti-task. Volcano modelling on the left and 'I'm a scientist' on the right.

Attempting to muti-task. Volcano modelling on the left and ‘I’m a scientist’ on the right. Attempts proved futile! Image credit: James Hickey.

Five scientists started the competition. I shared my zone with Julie, Saima, Antoine and Daniel, boasting a huge variety of subjects between us. Over the first week of the competition we had 10 live chat sessions, fortunately I was able to make all of them. Others weren’t so lucky. This also meant I ended up going solo in several of them, answering questions from an entire school class on my own. Things were heating up…

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At the same time, questions kept flooding in via the ‘ASK’ section to answer at our ‘leisure’ (the sooner the better). Volcanoes soon became the hot topic (sorry, awful pun…) and the students’ interest was building.

A comment from an interested student.

A comment from an interested student.

The pressure really ramped up in the second week when the student votes started to add up and scientists were evicted daily. Daniel was the first victim, followed by Antoine on Wednesday.

We will never know how the students decided to vote. Was it the way we answered their questions? Short and sharp, or more in-depth? Humour or just plain fact? I tried to mix mine up. Except when it was acceptable for the one-worded answer, e.g. ‘Messi or Ronaldo?’, or ‘Do the Taliban blow volcanoes up?’ (yeah, that happened…!). Or maybe it was just on our individual research topics?

Next to leave was Saima, and there were only a couple more live chat sessions to go. With just Julie and I remaining it was getting tense – I didn’t want to let down #teamvolcano. Amazingly the students still had numerous unanswered questions – maybe the things they just hadn’t had the chance to ask before (e.g. ‘can you drift a front-wheel drive car?’) or things they wouldn’t want to ask their teachers (e.g. ‘why do women get cravings when they’re pregnant?’).

Some Twitter-based support!

Some Twitter-based support!

The final day peaked with a ‘mega chat’ – 2 hours of uninterrupted live chat allowing students from multiple schools to drop in and ask more questions. This was it, the final chance to secure those all-important votes! The hour between the end of the chat and the results being announced was jittery at best…

Zone-by-zone the winners were revealed. My office mates clambered around my screen as they were released. Then…

The winner of the Tellurium Zone is James!

A wining message wouldn't be complete without a volcano pun!

A wining message wouldn’t be complete without a volcano pun!

Cue excitement! I had done it! Now to plan how I will spend the £500 prize on volcano-related outreach projects :D.

Obviously though, the real winners are the students. Hopefully the other scientists and I did enough to convince them that not all scientists are crazy with bad hair and hang around in a lab coat all day without ever seeing the sunlight. In fact one of the questions we were asked was ‘do you get bad hair days?’. Haha! If they go away with a more informed view of careers in science I think we can all consider ourselves successful. Sparking some interest outside of their school science curriculum and seeing how they can actually apply some of the stuff within their curriculum is all part and parcel of the event.

Hopefully this student wasn't the only one we inspired!

Hopefully this student wasn’t the only one we inspired!

My mind was blown by the huge variety of the questions thrown my way. I had to work really hard but I’m incredibly glad I did. Some of the questions were so imaginative — I think we start to lose that sort of mental freedom as we get older and our curiosity is constrained by sense, so it was refreshing to see it again and long may it continue.

The event will run again in March and I seriously encourage as many of you as possible to apply to take part. You will not regret it.

Abbreviated science

KFC, MTV, BP, BBC, NASA, NHS, UNICEF, FIFA…combinations of letters that are known the world over. These famous examples demonstrate the power of the acronym, a word formed from the initial components of a series of other words.

You may have noticed that acronyms in science seem to be everywhere. No grant proposal, research group or society is complete without the obligatory ‘humorous’ three- or four-letter shorthand. Bristol is placed pretty well for this; take BIG, BAPs and BUMS (…ok, the last one isn’t science-y). It’s easy to be dismissive and laugh them off as gimmicks. But do they help or hinder the scientific cause?

b logos

Bristol is home to BIG, BAPs and BUMS…or Bristol Isotope Group, Bristol Andros Projects and Bristol University Music Society

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