Understanding Public Risk Concerns: An investigation into the social perception, interpretation and communication of tree health risks

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: The Centre for Environmental Policy


The UK's trees, woods and forests are currently threatened by a range of invasive pests and pathogens, many of them introduced through the international trade in plants and trees. While the risk posed by these introductions to wildllife, accessible spaces and cherished landscapes have been known to about in offical circles for some time, it was arguably not until the introduction of the ash dieback pathogen to the UK in autumn 2012 that the public became much more widely involved. Extensive media coverage, social media commentary and the growing involvement of communities in efforts to monitor the spread of this disease and to detect the arrival of other pests and pathogens, all seem to suggest that tree health and its future safeguarding have become issues of public concern. This shift in the debate is an important development which needs to be harnessed by government, its agencies and various stakeholders in order to build support for stronger measures to prevent further introductions and to effectively manage those that are now estbalished. Despite this, we currently know little about the true nature of this concern and the extent to which it is likely to be sustained once media reporting of particular outbreaks declines. We know even less about the extent to which more risk-aware members of the public will be motivated to change their behaviour (for instance by buying plants only from accredited sources or reducing their demand for instant woody landscapes requiring the importation of large trees from outside the UK). This research will look at three recent outbreaks for which we have documentary and other evidence of public concern in order to assess the extent to which different sorts of people known to have had some sort of exposure to, or engagement with, our case study outbreaks (volunteers, garden and woodland visitors, local residents) currently recognise pest and disease risks to tree health, whether there is any evidence that their risk perceptions have changed over the course of outbreaks by being exposed to media coverage and risk communications from government and others and how far this makes them more or less willing to make behavioural changes.

Technical Summary

The aim of this social-science-led research project is to advance understanding of the evolving risk concerns and understandings UK publics in relation to invasive tree pests and diseases. Drawing on an extended version of the Social Amplification of Risk Framework (SARF), a body of work that has been developed in order to integrate technical analyses of risk with the social, cultural and individual factors influencing how publics experience it, we will compare how risk concerns of different publics have become amplified and/or attentuated over the course of three recent outbreaks with distinct biological and management history characteristics [Chalara fraxinea, Phytophthora ramorum, and Oak Processionary Moth). The research will combine documentary analysis, semi-structured interviewing, questionnaire surveys and face to face interviews, together with policy and practitioner workshops, to delineate representations of risk and uncertainty from expert and lay sources and to analyse how associated risk communications have been received, debated and (re)interpreted by publics at different points in the evolving hazard sequence relating to each case. This project will be the first to apply conceptualisations of social risk developed elsewhere to the case of tree pests and diseases. Empirically, the research will make a significant contribution to our understanding of what drives public risk concerns and how far these are differentiated across groups with different exposures to, and/or degrees of involvement with, tree pests and diseases. It will explain the public and media response to recent events such as the Chalara outbreak through an integrated analysis of the historical, social and risk communication influences at work. It will also generate important insights into the ways individuals are encountering tree pests and diseases in different settings and the extent to which they are able to relate the associated risks to their own actions and behaviours.

Planned Impact

The project will improve understanding of the nature, level and underlying drivers of public risk concerns and provide tools for better taking account of public perspectives in policy development and improving risk communication. These outcomes will benefit and be relevant to a wide range of people and organisations involved in the formulation, assessment and communication of tree health risks. The project will ensure that risks are analysed in a way that is relevant to a full range of public beneficiaries and which builds support for the policies and behavioural changes required to safeguard tree health. Key beneficiaries are:
1 Policymakers and advisers in Defra, FERA, FC and those in the Devolved Administrations responsible for delivering the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Action Plan and agreed Tree Health Expert Taskforce recommendations. The latter includes a recommendation for greater public involvement in the horizon scanning that will inform the new Plant Health Risk Register. This research should assist in scoping this involvement by better characterising the nature of public risk sensibilities around plant health. It will also make available an evidence base on which policymakers can draw to more effectively inform the choice of publics to target in further engagement and consultation initiatives. The Action Plan's Theme C further emphasises the need to raise public awareness and to adopt a more coordinated and engaged approach to the way government uses the media to communicate risks to tree and plant health. Our research will provide one of the first systematic accounts of how publics of different complexions are currently assessing tree pest and disease risks, what significance they attach to these relative to other types of risk concerns and how receptive they are likely to be to risk communications of various types and provenance. The project will give policymakers an opportunity to learn from past experiences regarding their engagement with publics on this issue and on that basis to identify when, how and who to communicate with to maximise future effectiveness. It will specifically benefit officials involved in improving the coordination of risk communication campaigns across different media, for instance, by identifying the routes through which official risk communication messages are reaching publics, the role played by the media in filtering these messages and the relative importance of social media exchanges in determining, and reflecting public views.
2 Risk managers, stakeholders and other risk practitioners needing to engage directly with publics in order prevent and/or manage pest and disease outbreaks. People such as FC Tree Health Inspectors, local authority tree officers, garden and woodland owners and managers and nursery trade operators are likely to find that the effective communication of pest and disease risks to publics (countryside, woodland and garden visitors, local residents and plant buyers) becomes an increasingly important part of their work. By generating detailed insights from social surveys into the way these different groups typically encounter tree pests and diseases and what impact this has on their risk perceptions and willingness to change behaviour; the research will provide an evidence base and recommendations (?) that can be used by those influencing micro-behaviours in different settings and social contexts.
3 Currently impacted or engaged publics who are already concerned about risks to tree health, together with publics who may in future become concerned. By providing evidence about the extent and depth of current and possible future public concern and explaining it in terms of underlying beliefs and values, the project will help Defra and others strengthen the public interest case for stronger precautions and more proactive interventions to safeguard tree health. This will benefit future publics and make it easier for them both to articulate their concerns.


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Description • The way in which eExperts (policy makers, scientists, outbreak managers and key stakeholders) assess and assemble the risk case assessment is a socially-mediated and incremental process which draws on a range of technical, anecdotal and experiential sources of information. Aligned with this, experts make attributions abut public concern, especially when the evidence base is incomplete and there is a need to justify policy and management actions and safeguard reputation in the face of uncertainty;. not a benchmark for addressing 'distorted' public risk perceptions, and focuses primarily on the ecological dimension in risk.
• A lack of technical consensus on the ecology of some tree health problems may mean that subjective public values provide particularly relevant dimensions on which action can be agreed
• 'Attention' to tree health events is not the same as 'concern'. Tree health events are not discrete events, but develop over time and have social, economic and political dimensions as well as their causal ecology. For example, social media attention to ash dieback was generally framed in similar terms to traditional media and amplifies rather than leads public responses. Moreover, interest is independent of specific ash dieback issues; it arises because ash dieback intersects with existing core interests.
Survey findings suggested there are low Llevels of awareness and knowledge about of trees pests and diseases is generally low amongst the British public. However, this evidence that many are , but they are concerned about the health of trees, forests and woodlands and express a moderate willingness to adopt biosecure beahviours. A comparison with findings from a survey conducted three3 years previously showed a decline over time in awareness, concern and willingness to change behaviour. Moreover,
• Ppublic perceptions of tree health are shaped by people's world views, personal experience and long standing interests. Subjective, public values are particularly relevant dimensions when there is a lack of technical consensus on the cause or management of tree health problems.
• More broadly, 'aAttention' to tree health events is not the same as 'concern'. Tree health events are not discrete events, but develop over time and have social, economic and political dimensions as well as their causal ecology. For example, social media attention to ash dieback was generally framed in similar terms to traditional media and amplifies rather than leads public responses. Moreover, interest is independent of specific ash dieback issues; it arises because ash dieback intersects with existing core interests.
Exploitation Route These outputs will be of value to risk managers at various levels of government, together with stakeholders with a stake in safeguardiing future tree heatlh.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description Policy Workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A policy workshop was held during November 2017 in order to present outputs from the project to high level policymakers in Defra and in the Forstry Commisision.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007