167 people died, and the production facility was consumed by fire in the Piper Alpha accident on the UK Continental Shelf in 1990. The disaster was a wake-up call to the Norwegian oil industry. Statoil initiated an extensive risk assessment to identify the most effective measures to prevent a similar accident from happening on Statfjord A ? the platform which resembled Piper Alpha the most.
A team was assigned to this task, and risk analyst Terje Aven was on it. When presenting the results from the assessment to the Statoil management, Aven displayed a figure showing the overall risk numbers, and was swiftly interrupted by one of the company directors: "What exactly do these probability numbers mean and what about the uncertainties?" he asked.
To this day, Aven is annoyed by the reply he gave. He felt it was not good enough. There and then, he realised that the basis of the field of risk assessment was too weak. This was the starting point of an extensive and long-term effort to strengthen the scientific foundation of risk assessment and management.
Twenty years on, the fruit of his labour is a new platform for understanding the concept of risk.
New conceptions of risk
Terje Aven is now a professor at the University of Stavanger's Department of industrial economics, risk management and planning.
"There are widespread ways of thinking within the risk fields which I find unfortunate. These conceptions are common both in the academic literature and industry, but they cannot be justified scientifically," Dr. Aven says.
In his book Misconceptions of risk (2010), Aven describes these unfortunate mindsets. He identifies a total of 19 misconceptions, and discusses their shortcomings.
The idea that risk can be expressed by means of an objective figure is one such misconception.
"Many people seem to believe that this is possible, but they are wrong. A figure can be given, but it is always subjective, and dependent on the the available knowledge and assumptions made," Aven explains.
At the end of his book, Aven presents a solution to these problems, in line with the new way of thinking about risk, which he has developed over the last ten years. One pillar in this theory is the importance of separating risk as a concept ? which includes the consequences of an activity and the uncertainties regarding these consequences ? and the way we express and measure risk, by employing probability and risk analysis models.
"Every risk assessment depends on available knowledge and assumptions, and we therefore have to look beyond the probability calculations and the expected values when we evaluate risk," he says.
The new way of looking at risk is not just academically significant, Dr. Aven emphasises. It changes the way risk should be assessed, managed and communicated within industry and the society in general. It also carries ethical and political implications.
Social science collaboration
Some years ago, Aven started to collaborate with the German risk scientist, Professor Ortwin Renn. In the autumn of 2010 their book Risk management and Risk governance was released.
During their first years of collaboration, Aven and Renn strived to come up with an answer to some fundamental challenges within their field of study: What is risk, and how can it be described? Their effort has resulted in a number of scientific papers.
"We could not proceed in our work until we had built a foundation for it. We wanted to further develop Renn's risk governance framework but we were unable to do so without establishing a new and improved scientific platform," Dr. Aven says.
In Risk management and Risk governance Aven addresses risk management in connection with petroleum activities in the Barents Sea and Lofoten area to illustrate some important issues. Among them is the implementation of the cautionary and precautionary principle.
After finishing the book, the authors have taken up this subject again, and produced yet another paper, based on new information concerning the governance of the area in recent years.
The new book Quantitative Risk Assessment: The Scientific Platform, was released in February 2011. In this book, Aven discusses the application of the reliability and validity criteria when carrying out risk assessments, and what these criteria mean in relation to risk communication and in employing the cautionary and precautionary principles.
"In this new book, I wanted to synthesise scientific research from several papers, extend the analyses and provide a guideline to ensuring a scientific platform for the risk assessment field," he says.
Had you been asked to carry out a risk assessment on Statfjord A today ? would it be very different from the one you did in 1990?
"Some things would have been similar, given that we apply many of the same methods and techniques today. But a lot of it would be different. The results derive from the basic principles and thinking behind the assessment, and the manner in which we communicate these findings and implement them into our decision-making processes. These principles and ways of thinking were not quite in place in 1990. In many cases, they are not in place today either. A large number of risk assessments are still based on a similar, weak foundation to those we did in 1990 ? which is tragic," Aven concludes.