Risk communication roundtable gives students unique experience

Risk is a complex issue and it inundates every part of our lives. Some risk decisions are mundane. Is it more risky to fly or drive? How risky is it to eat raw fish in sushi?

But when it comes to science and technology there are bigger questions to ask. What are the risks involved in not vaccinating a child? How safe are genetically modified crops for the environment? Is nuclear energy risky? What are the dangers of climate change? When thinking specifically about Wisconsin and its natural resources, what are the risks and benefits involved with manure irrigation, the farming technique of irrigating crops with manure as a form of fertilizer?

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Left to Right: Ken Genskow, a UW associate professor and leader of a UW-Extension work group; Ron Seely, science journalist and LSC senior lecturer; Dawn Haag, assistant vice president of Badgerland Financial and farmer.

It is these questions that students analyze in the Department of Life Sciences Communication class called LSC 625: Risk Communication taught by the department’s chair Dominique Brossard. In the class students learn about the complexity of the public’s perception of risk and how communicators can work to better accurately portray risks.

The issue of manure irrigation has become a hot topic in Wisconsin as entities begin to evaluate the risks and benefits of the practice in relation to the delicate balance of Wisconsin’s natural resources. This evaluation comes as the Department of Natural Resources receives a large number of requests from farmers wanting to begin using the practice.

This issue has made an excellent case study for the Risk Communication class to talk about this semester and Brossard came up with the idea to host a roundtable for the class. She gathered three individuals that represented three of the stakeholder groups in the issue and they spoke to students on Thursday, Oct. 23.

“I am very thankful to the participants for giving their time and view points to the class,” Brossard said. “When it comes to risk, the answer is often ‘well, it depends’ and it was great for the class to get to see that first hand. There are numerous opinions, view points and expertise to consider when talking about risk.”

Ron Seely, a science journalist and LSC senior lecturer who has covered manure irrigation in his writing, represented the journalism side. Ken Genskow, a UW associate professor and leader of a UW-Extension work group researching best practices for manure irrigation, came to speak about policy issues and the research taking place behind the issue. Assistant vice president of Badgerland Financial and farmer Dawn Haag spoke about what manure irrigation does for the farmers themselves.

Each speaker was able to give his or her unique perspective on the topic and students asked questions about how they each communicate the risks and benefits of the issue to others.

Those against manure irrigation point to increased odor at properties surrounding farms using the practice and to the risks of water, soil and air contamination from microbes in the manure. Proponents of manure bring up benefits such as less road damage and increased road safety because the trucks that usually transport manure off farms don’t have to be used, as well as the fact that manure is essentially a great natural fertilizer compared to what some farmers would use instead.

“As a journalist I want to convey as much as possible about how the science and research are done,” Seely said. “I work to be fair, objective and present both sides by interviewing a number of sources. Risk is tied to a lot of environmental issues like this and something we think a lot about is how to accurately portray those risks.”

Genskow’s working group was formed at the request of the DNR and is researching best practices for manure irrigation and conditions under which it could or perhaps should not be used. For example, to reduce the risk of odor and contamination they are reviewing the effects of spray nozzles and how far the spray from those nozzles can travel.

“The issue is complex because there are trade-offs. For example, if it’s a sunny day, that may actually decrease the risk for pathogens because the UV rays can destroy microbes. Yet higher temperatures from a sunny day may increase greenhouse gas emissions,” Genskow said. “And that’s just one example of many about the complex questions we have to answer. We have a diverse set of perspectives in the work group making sure we answer these questions. Right now there is a lot of uncertainty and we are still talking about how to balance the issues.”

When the work group has finished their report they will release a set of recommendations that takes into account the risks, benefits and tradeoffs of the practice.

Haag spoke about how manure is a natural material and valuable asset to farmers and how many of them are excited to have the recommendations.

“Risk is all about balance,” she said. “It’s a delicate balance between risks and benefits but those risks and benefits are different for everyone. We have to do this as a community and work together to mediate the risks involved. Manure irrigation is one potential tool in the farmers’ toolbox and farmers want to use the best tools available while minimizing risks to neighbors, employees, and society as a whole.”

Students in the class saw it as a valuable experience that enriched what they have been learning theoretically in the class.

“I thought that the roundtable was a unique opportunity for us to interact with stakeholders,” said Max Sellman. “Most of our information on the manure irrigation debate came from mass-mediated news outlets, so it was interesting to see the stakeholders trying to get their messages out in person.”

Another student in the class, Lindsey Bouras, said she got a better understanding of how scientific uncertainty can play a role in risk perceptions, which was discussed in class.

“After listening to viewpoints from different stakeholders (farmer, science writer and policy advocate), I had a better understanding of how different people view the issue,” she said. “Uncertainty is often linked to risk and this causes problems when trying to convey a message on science and emerging technology. People are going to view manure irrigation as risky because of the uncertainty, even though there’s a chance that the uncertainty may be diminished and the practice may be determined to be safe and not risky with scientific research. We just don’t know which way it will go yet.”