Risk and Uncertainty

Author:  Scott Janzwood
Publication:  Climatic Change (2020)

The uncertainty language framework used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is designed to encourage the consistent characterization and communication of uncertainty between chapters, working groups, and reports. However, the framework has not been updated since 2010, despite criticism that it was applied inconsistently in the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) and that the distinctions between the framework’s three language scales remain unclear. This article presents a mixed-methods analysis of the application and underlying interpretation of the uncertainty language framework by IPCC authors in the three special reports published since AR5. First, I present an analysis of uncertainty language term usage in three recent special reports. The language usage analysis highlights how many of the trends identified in previous reports—like the significant increase in the use of confidence terms—have carried forward into the special reports. These observed trends, along with ongoing debates in the literature on how to interpret the framework’s three language scales, inform an analysis of IPCC author experiences interpreting and implementing the framework.

Author:  Scott Janzwood
Publication:  Research Policy (2021)

"Mission-oriented" public research organizations invest in R&D to improve decision-making around complex policy problems from climate change to asteroid impacts, thus producing public value. However, the estimation of benefits produced by such R&D projects is notoriously difficult to predict and measure - a challenge that is magnified for global catastrophic risks (GCRs). GCRs are highly uncertain risks that may pose enormous negative consequences for humanity. This article explores how public research organizations systematically reduce key uncertainties associated with GCRs. Building off of recent literature highlighting the organizational and political factors that influence R&D priority-setting at public research organizations, this article develops an analytical framework for explaining R&D priority-setting outcomes that integrates the key stages of decision analysis with organizational and political dynamics identified in the literature. This framework is then illustrated with a case study of the NASA Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which addresses the GCR of near-Earth object (asteroid and comet) impacts. The case study reveals how organizational and political factors interact with every stage in the R&D priority-setting process - from initial problem definition to project selection. Lastly, the article discusses the extent to which the case study can inform R&D priority-setting at other public organizations, particularly those addressing GCRs.