Risk experts have long observed that newly emerging diseases generate complex and sometimes contradictory interactions between attempts by governments to manage disease outbreaks, media coverage of those events and the diverse risk perceptions of stakeholders and publics. The difficulty for policymakers is that the technical risk assessment tools and methodologies they rely on to set priorities, recommend and justify preventative actions and target scarce resources may not always be well attuned to often rapidly evolving public risk understandings and the social and cultural processes which shape these. In the case of pest and disease threats to trees and woodlands, the sudden upsurge in public concern in late 2012 following identification of the Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (previously called Chalara fraxinea) pathogen in the UK took many by surprise. Over a period of weeks, tree health was promoted from being an issue of expert and high level stakeholder concern to a major focus of public debate and media coverage, leading to questions about institutional competence and broader critiques of biosecurity breaches in the live plant trade. The resulting social intensification of public risk concern, if sustained, is likely to have profound implications for the way tree pest and disease threats need to be handled and communicated by government, its agencies and stakeholders (see Pidgeon & Barnett 2013). Concerned publics, diverse in their interests and knowledge, will need to be more widely involved in the policy debates which frame the problem and set priorities if they are to have trust in, and a sense of ownership of, procedures such as Defra’s new Plant Health Risk Register and the technical judgements about uncertainty and risk which underpin these.

At this important moment in government and stakeholder efforts to safeguard tree health in the UK, it is essential that policymakers and risk managers have a better understanding of how different publics view (and are willing to tolerate or seek to minimise) future risks to tree health. We need to know which publics are currently affected by or engaged with tree health risks. We also need to know how their respective understandings of risk develop over the course of outbreaks through exposure to official risk communications, public debate and/or personal experience. As evidenced in the human and animal health fields public risk understandings do not develop in isolation but will be influenced by cultural associations and personal experience, assessments of institutional competence and the historical benchmarking of previous disease risk events. A useful way to conceptualise these interacting influences is provided by the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF), developed in the late 1980s in order to integrate technical analyses of risk with the social, cultural and individual factors influencing how publics experience it. The SARF emphasises the ultimately socially constructed nature of all risk perceptions and lays stress on the dynamic processes through which risk is communicated and interpreted.

Policymakers and risk managers need a better understanding of how different publics view the risks to tree health."

In the context of tree pests and diseases, SARF suggests that the way risks are communicated by government and tree health professionals in their role as ‘risk amplification stations’ is important. The nature and scale of media coverage is also likely to be influential and social media is an increasingly important vehicle through which public concern can be expressed, debated and intensified. The way that publics actively interpret and make sense of these communications before, during and after an outbreak - and thus arrive at assessments of the riskiness of their own actions and those of others - are likely to be informed by previous publicly shared experiences of comparable hazards and risk events as well as personal encounters with disease in gardens, parks, woodlands and forests. Certainly the idea that it is this hazard sequencethat shapes public concern, rather than simply interpretations of the issue of the moment, resonates in the context of tree health. We know, for example, that the Dutch Elm Disease outbreak of the 1970s constitutes an important point of reference for many people, as will other recent policy controversies relating to woodlands and forests such as the aborted sale of the public forest estate in 2010.

In order to advance understanding of the risk concerns and interpretations that UK publics attach to tree pests and disease the objectives of the UNPICK project are:

  • To develop a social risk analytical framework in order to better understand the nature, extent and likely future development of public risk concerns in relation to invasive tree pests and diseases (WP1).
  • To case study three tree pest and diseases in order to document the way risks have been framed and communicated by scientists, policymakers and biosecurity professionals over the course of outbreaks in their role as risk amplification stations (WP2).
  • To further document and analyse from secondary sources the role of traditional and social media in the communication and interpretation of tree health risks during these outbreaks (WP3).
  • To analyse and compare the resulting public risk concerns and understandings of observing, affected, engaged and general publics in relation to these outbreaks (WP4).
  • To reflect on the public engagement and risk communication implications of the work by exploring approaches and  mechanisms through which policymakers, risk managers and communicators can become more responsive to, and engaged with, public risk concerns (WP5).

These objectives will be addressed through five Work Packages.

Work Packages

Work Package 1 – Setting the context: Characterisation of tree pest and disease outbreaks

The objective of this work package is to develop a theoretically framed social analysis of the risks and uncertainty associated with tree pests and diseases. This will be achieved through a literature review and desk research to draw together concepts and empirical examples from the broad risk literature using the Social Assessment of Risk Framework (SARF) to understand the likely nature and intensity of public responses to tree pest and disease risks. Characterisations of the pathogen and pest outbreak pathways will be undertaken for the three case studies of ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus), Ramorum blight (Phytophtora ramorum) and Oak Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea processionea, OPM).


Work Package 2 – Risk amplification: Framing, assessment and communication of tree health risks

Work Package 2 aims to chart the emergence of expert concern in tree health and the risk management and communication actions that have followed. This will be achieved through an integration of documentary analysis in outbreak reconstruction and key informant interviews (e.g. policy makers, tree pathologists, regional tree health inspectors) in order to elicit personal recollections and retrospective assessment of the hazard sequence and how the risk was framed, assessed and managed at different points. These actors will be assessed for their role as ‘risk amplification stations’ by examining how they communicate tree health risks and what publics they communicate with.


Work Package 3 - Traditional and social media as indicators of public concern

The aim of Work Package 3 is to understand, firstly, how the risk framings and communications from scientists and various biosecurity professionals have been filtered and interpreted through media reporting and social media over the course of the outbreaks. Secondly, direct expressions of concern from observing publics will be explored by examining email and telephone enquiries to Forest Research’s Disease and Diagnostics Advisory Service (FRAS) over the last 5 years.


Work Package 4 - Public risk concerns and behaviour

The objective of this Work Package is to document and compare levels and trajectories of risk concern among different types of publics. This will be achieved through a questionnaire survey to capture and assess public concern and test whether there are any differences between demographic and other respondent attributes in terms of (1) general awareness of risks to tree health; (2) sources of information and types of media coverage shaping this awareness; (3) degrees of risk concern, changes in this concern over time and assessments of risks to tree health relative to other types and categories of risk; and (4) willingness and ability to adopt risk-reducing personal behaviours. In addition, interviews with smaller samples of publics will be undertaken to explore in more depth the knowledge, attitude and behaviour dimensions of the risk concerns indicated by the survey.


Work Package 5 – Communicating risk

Work Package 5 has the goal of ensuring that the outputs from UNPICK are communicated to relevant stakeholders and ensuring that there is a dialogue between the research team and the wider policy and practitioner community. Quarterly briefings will enable the team to keep abreast of the evolving context for the work and culminate in two policy and practice workshops. Data and analyses from WP1-4 will be integrated into a series of case study presentations to demonstrate to end users how risks have been communicated, perceived and interpreted by different publics in a series of specific tree pest and disease contexts. Outbreak scenarios will be prepared for plausible future outbreaks, building on the case studies and the wider policy and practice scanning, and providing a new focus to explore learning and application of findings. These will be presented at two separate policy and practitioner workshops and the results will be disseminated as Policy and Practice Notes.