The University of Newcastle, Australia

‘Fear factors’ and the price for peace of mind

Puzzled by a world in which security often trumps economics, Professor Mark Stewart is undertaking assessments of natural and man-made safety risks to prove expenditure on their reduction isn't always wise - or even necessary.

Professor Mark Stewart 

Stewart's risk-based assessments of terrorism and climate change may be textbook civil engineering, but his findings are far from what you would expect – as is his recent publishing in Playboy Magazine. Making for a prickly work environment and perhaps an even pricklier public reception, Stewart is as unconventional as they come.

'My research can be unpopular at times,' he jokes.

'We're saying there's actually not that much to be scared about.'

While claims of these 'rather limited' safety risks could be cause for confusion in our postmillennial age of media hype and misinformation, Stewart asserts his research is all evidence-based. With more than 25 years' experience in probabilistic risk and vulnerability assessment of infrastructure and security systems, his expertise is equally well-founded.

'Terrorism and climate change are systems, just like motor vehicles are to mechanical engineers and computers are to those in the electrical field,' he says.

'Our fundamental approach is similar too - we break down the systems to understand their different components and then integrate what we think the reduction in loss will be if you have a protective measure.'

Risky business

Stewart's risk assessments have varied applications but all intentionally pose the same question – Not are we safer, but are we spending wisely?

The multiple-award winning engineer recently sought to answer this on behalf of the US Department of Homeland Security, engaging in a joint evaluation of its expenditure with Ohio State University political scientist, John Mueller. The unorthodox duo's efforts were featured on the CNN website and in Playboy Magazine, with their research revealing vast amounts of misspent money, as well as a gap in our theoretical understanding of current risk assessment procedures.

'Assessments nowadays seem to be a process of identifying potential sources of harm and then trying to do something about them without evaluating whether the new measures reduce risks sufficiently to justify the costs,' he explains.

'This means we keep spending billions of dollars without subjecting certain risks to standard cost-benefit methods.'

Cause for pause, not alarm

One of these risks, as Stewart points out, is terrorism. It's also a risk that tends to be catastrophised in places like the United States and Australia.

'Terrorism is a low probability, high consequence event,' he declares.

'There are not that many attacks in the West and there have never been that many, especially when you compare it to the Middle East.'

'There are also more duds than successes out there.'

Stewart has received extensive Australian Research Council support over the last decade to develop probabilistic risk-modelling techniques for infrastructure subject to military and terrorist explosive blasts, as well as cost-benefit assessments of counterterrorism protection measures. Expressly influenced by the events of 9/11, he is simultaneously looking to dispel widely held beliefs about terrorist competencies and opportunities.

'Hijacking during 9/11 was to kill people - not for cash or to peacefully negotiate the release of prisoners like it had been in the past,' he states. 

'It set the benchmark for terrorism, but I think it's an outlier and not a harbinger of things to come.'

'They've since hardened cockpit doors and instructed pilots, crew and the public not to give in without a fight.'

Believing Al Qaeda 'took advantage of these vulnerabilities at the time,' Stewart largely considers the events of 9/11 as a one-off. The Director of The University's Centre for Infrastructure Performance and Reliability remains on high alert though, labelling a growing shift towards improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as the newest hazard of terrorism. He's working with a dedicated research team to break down these individual systems, applying conventional engineering approaches and assessing their overall safety.

Funding faults

Stewart is also currently exploring cost-benefit analysis methods of police and security agencies in the United States. Set to publish his findings in a fourth book, the evidence-based engineer is again looking at what has already occurred, what is occurring, and what might occur.

'I'm asking the same questions,' he asserts.

'How many terrorist plots have there been and could there be in the future?

'How much is being spent to reduce their risk?

'Most importantly, is it worth it?

Suspecting a case of misspent money on unlikely threats akin to that of the US Department of Homeland Security, Stewart is seeking to sensibly calculate the costs of protection, as well as identify the most effective counterterrorism measures.

'We'll always compare it to 'business as usual' he says.

'To avoid overreacting, sometimes the best thing is to just accept the risk and do nothing at all.'

Mapping the winds of climate change

Stewart similarly observes a lot of worst-case thinking in the climate change arena. Also recognising the power these skewed perceptions can often hold over legislators and financial advisors, he is looking to clear up misunderstandings with the help of the CSIRO and a handful of universities.

The team's research is ongoing, and uses comparable risk assessment methods to evaluate the impact of climate change on damage and safety risks to infrastructure, as well as the cost-effectiveness of engineering adaptation strategies. Their multi-pronged approach also includes evidence-based policy and economic theory.

'Again, we're looking at systems and threats,' Stewart says.

'But in this instance, systems are things like houses and industrial buildings, and threats are naturally-occurring, such as floods and cyclones.'

Research is currently being conducted across the country, with Stewart's collaborators at James Cook University responsible for investigating the vulnerability of houses to wind in Far North Queensland, and civil engineers at the University of New South Wales examining heat and the buckling of rail lines. Unlike terrorism, Stewart contends protective measures for these systems don't automatically come with a hefty price tag.

'We've found you can reduce the risk of damage significantly by changing materials,' he affirms.

'It's all about detailing at a modest cost – tying the roof to the walls and the walls to the foundations.'

Mass fear and cheer

While acknowledging the pressure politicians and bureaucrats face on heated issues of climate change and terrorism, as well as the sometimes-unwise actions and expenditures that follow, Stewart is also a firm believer in practical and rational calculations.

'It's one of the reasons I like risk assessments,' he discloses.

'They're transparent so the evidence is there for people to see.'

Hoping a balance will soon be struck between cuts and pay offs, Stewart is similarly looking to standardise risk assessment procedures for a broad range of safety concerns.   

'It makes sense that the public has difficulty with probabilities, especially when emotions are involved,' he remarks.

'But by giving in to fear and spending irrationally, we forgo the opportunity to use those same resources for regulations and processes that can save more lives at an equal or lower cost, such as healthcare and road safety.'