Interview Clarissa Rios Rojas: "global risks need to become dinner table discussions"

How to bring politics and science closer, and to prepare for the next global risk.

Dear reader,

Below you can find my interview with Clarissa Rios Rojas, which is part of the Anti-Apocalyptus newsletter. Each week I send you five links about some of the most important challenges of our time: climate change, weapons of mass destruction, emerging technologies, mass causes of death and great power wars. If you haven’t done so yet, feel free to subscribe at the button below, hit the heart button or share this email with anyone who would be interested.

Clarissa Rios Rojas is a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) of the University of Cambridge. She started her career in molecular biology, but she has since moved from the lab to connecting policy-makers and scientists. Today she helps politicians think about global risks such as nuclear war, bioweapons, malign AI and pandemics. In this interview we discuss her work and how we can get politics to care about existential risks.

What’s your background, and how did you end up working on global risk?

"I’m from Peru where I studied biology and genetics. Later, I studied biotechnology at the University of Turku in Finland and took a master's degree in Biomedicine and Neurosciences at Karolinska Institutet University in Sweden. My PhD was on developmental biology and molecular biology at the University of Queensland in Australia. But, when I finished my PhD I wanted to do more applied work and focus on global priorities. I started looking for new careers paths that would allow me to use my scientific background. This way I encountered science diplomacy and the Global Young Academy, a super powerful organisation of young scientists committed to building a better world.

During this process I got into government science advice, which is what I'm focusing on right now. I use scientific evidence to support policy-making.

After I got my PhD I first worked on gender equality for a Peruvian government agency. Afterwards I worked for the EU Science Hub, on human genomics. Then I moved to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, working on emerging technologies and how they impact international security. Today I remain at the interface of science and policy-making, and make sure that the studies we produce at CSER can be used by governments to better manage global risk."

Why do you like to work on global risks?

"Throughout my career I saw how technologies develop much faster than political or public awareness about them. So it's a combination of passion for technology, and wanting to advise policy-makers and citizens on how to build a better future. In my current work, that’s what we aim to do by preventing terrible scenarios for humanity."

What does COVID-19 mean for scientific policy-advice? Particularly since many governments failed to take decisive action.

"What we have witnessed during the past few months is that countries with scientific advisory boards didn't necessarily perform better than other countries during the pandemic. This could be due to different reasons. Politicians might have taken decisions that were useful for themselves, not the country as a whole. Or knowledge management within government might have been badly structured. In some countries there were guidelines and recommendations in place for pandemics, but when decisions had to be taken it was hard to find and follow them.

What we have witnessed during the past few months is that countries with scientific advisory boards didn't necessarily perform better than other countries during the pandemic

An idea that can facilitate this process could be the creation of chief risk officers in government, who can work together regionally or even at the UN level. Furthermore, we need an international framework for global risk, so that there can be a coordinated global response.

The pandemic also showed that policy-makers aren't necessarily aware of the needs of poor citizens. In Peru many policies were introduced without taking into account how they would affect the most vulnerable parts of the population. A policy that allowed men and women to go out on different days was for example established. Which was detrimental to many households because some of them are formed by females only. On top of that, only 50% of the Peruvian population have a refrigerator at home, so it's very hard to ask people to stay inside, and not go to the market every day. Another example of this broken link between policymakers and citizens was evident when the government started distributing financial support to a section of poor citizens. It required them to have bank accounts, which they generally didn't have. So then everyone had to go to the bank office at the same time, hampering social distancing measures.

This information was already available in government reports, but when politicians take decisions, they don't seem to have this data at hand. Which is why knowledge management and citizen engagement is so important."

Isn’t it frustrating to work with politicians who, when a key moment arrives, ignore scientific advice?

"We really need to think about an holistic approach. Do politicians really not know about the evidence around global risk? Or is it just political suicide for them to take deep measures against them? It isn’t easy to win voters by talking about asteroids that might hit earth, or pandemics that haven't emerged yet.

Do politicians really not know about the evidence around global risk? Or is it just political suicide for them to take deep measures against them? It isn’t easy to win voters by talking about asteroids that might hit earth, or pandemics that haven't emerged yet.

Power has to come from people, and science needs to grow closer to society and vice versa. At the end of the day citizens are the ones that elect government officials. If they are informed about global risk, if their dinner table discussions involve AI safety and climate change, then different policies can be enacted. Knowledge about science among citizens needs to be strengthened.”

Are you confident we will be able to do that?

"Yes! Ten years ago I almost didn't know any science communicators, or scientists that were interested in policy. But today there are many. Things are changing. The silver lining of this pandemic might be that people are becoming more interested in evidence and what scientists can offer. This pandemic might be the beginning of some change in terms of cooperation between the scientific community, society, industry and policymakers."

What measures can we take to reduce our vulnerability to global risks?

"I think we need to innovate in how we communicate science. For a study on bio-engineering risks for example we did a comic, which is a way to communicate the different futures that can emerge from the technological decisions we take now. Our aim is to make people think about the futures they want.

Institutional change could also be important. In the UK people like Martin Rees are pushing for a future generations bill. As I already mentioned, chief risk officers are also a good option. At the same time we need to engage more with science communicators and journalists to communicate what risk and uncertainty mean. What low-probability, but high-impact events are, and how we can deal with them."

How can we prepare for the next pandemic, or global risk event?

"One key issue will be lessons learned from this pandemic. We need to change the education curricula of secondary schools and higher education. We need to talk about what went wrong and right, and how we reacted to different policies. This will allow students to think about issues like global citizenship and the role they may play in battling a global catastrophic event. At the same time we need more degrees that offer courses in areas like global risk. In this way we may be able to incorporate insights in scientific and political processes, and we can make faster reforms."

How can we improve the relation between science and policy-making?

"Scientists have been raised to only think about science and the beauty of research. We are locked in our labs, and don't see how our work fits into areas like economics, law or politics. But nowadays, there are many institutions offering courses on policy engagement for scientists or creating programs that send them to work for a short-time at government offices. These paths bring us closer to other stakeholders and allow us to work in a transdisciplinary way.

Universities could also promote spaces for students to engage with policy-makers. This will show both parties how science and evidence fit into their processes. It’s also important for scientists to understand how to navigate the world of politics, and the earlier you start the better.”

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