A new chair dedicated to emerging risks

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Launched last March, the RITE research chair, funded by the Pays de la Loire Region, is working on "new risks " linked to economic development and innovation. Taking an original approach, based on transversality and dialogue between all the stakeholders – including the "general public".

Between the "hard" sciences and human and social sciences it is not always easy to communicate – even if much progress has been made over the last twenty years. The Ecole des Mines de Nantes has however become an expert on this issue. And recent evidence of this has taken the form of a new research chair called  "Emerging risks and technologies – from technology management to social regulation" (RITE).

Coordinated by the Social Sciences and Management department of the school, the new research chair is part of a partnership agreement signed with the   Pays de la Loire Region, with funding of 380.000 euros over three years. Its ambition : to bring together the key stakeholders (scientists, as well as public and private managers ) to focus on the management of risks arising from technological and economic development. "Our societies are innovating and growing, explains Bénédicte Geffroy, head of the SSG department. In doing so, they generate new risks, sometimes misidentified or indefinable. These risks concern not only the environment (pollution, climatic change...) but health (epidemics, rare diseases), nuclear energy and digital technology and data protection. They are also major societal issues." How do you steer risk management between the key stakeholders ? What limits are deemed acceptable by all the actors ? How is decision-making carried out during a crisis ? What terms and conditions need to be put in place between public authorities, the scientists, and the public sphere ? Such are the questions which the chair will try to find answers to.

In order to this, RITE has adopted an original approach, based first of all on an interdisciplinary approach : the three other departments in the school - the  SUBATECH laboratory, working on nuclear science, the Energy Systems and Environment department, as well as the Automatic Control and Production Systems and IT department work closely together. This is something the SSG department is now used to doing, since not only are they involved in issues related to the social sciences, but they are also very interested in transversal issues, and in the "interfaces" between disciplines. "Working on these issues enables us to make real headway – and this is the case for risk, explains Sophie Brétesché, lecturer and and facilitator for the chair. The idea is to generate cross-cutting viewpoints, to reach a better understanding of risk management."


Bringing together actors from different horizons


Another outstanding feature of this chair : its aim is to generate a wide-ranging debate between the scientific community and the various key stakeholders, at a local level : political leaders, economic figures and citizens. "We are taking up the challenge of bringing together laboratories of civil society and the industrial sector, explains Sophie Brétesché. Society does not have to accept  at face value, without real reflection and discussion, technological or industrial equipment, whatever they may be. Society must have a voice in the decision-making process. In a way, RITE is a scientific mediation chair : it is not about doing basic scientific research, but rather a collaboration between actors from different  horizons, on a scientific basis." A somewhat "différent" way to approach these subjects – which could, long term, have an impact on how the school actually functions.

For the teacher, one must not fall into the trap of skills delivered as turnkey solutions by companies or political leaders : "We do not reject the work of  experts, we are not in competition with them. However we are looking to provide another viewpoint, different to theirs, she adds. For nuclear energy for example, it is not radioactivity which is the important thing, but rather the way in which the local population lives with that radioactivity, in the field." The SSG department has already carried out, in association with Subatech, work on abandoned uranium mines, on sites at la Commanderie and Chardon.


Over the next few months, work by the chair should lead to a number of practical initiatives. The work will include a training component for the engineering students at the school, which could lead to educational innovations. A "serious game" focused on the safety of a nuclear power plant was drawn up at the instigation of the SSG within the framework of the research chair RESOH (Research in Safety Organization and human factors).

And that's not all. A scientific network will also be set up across the Nantes area, with the aim of increasing the general public's awareness of risk prevention. And finally, from next autumn onwards, "Risk Days", the first of their kind, will be organised in Nantes. For this new chair, there are plenty of projects to be getting on with...


The first "Risk Days", in November, in Nantes


"Nuclear energy, man and society" : this will be the central theme of the  "Journées du risque" (Risk Days), organised jointly by the two research chairs RITE and RESOH at the SSG department at the Ecole des Mines, from the 16th to the 18th of November, at the Cité des congrès in Nantes. The objective : to bring together the key players (industrialists, associations, public organisations, research scientists) working on different issues (human, organisational, societal) related to nuclear power. A number of renowned professors from abroad will also be invited. The first day will be aimed particularly at PhD students, after evaluation of their proposals.

At the heart of the discussions is one key question : how can we reconcile  the imperative of the reliability of installations with the required performance – at an economic, industrial or environmental level... ? Something which is an issue for all  high-risk industries, but which is particularly relevent in the case of the nuclear sector.

These "Journées du risque" should also involve the research being carried out within the framework of the Agoras project, launched after the accident at Fukushima, and the Needs project, coordinated by the CNRS.

Three themes have been selected, on which people will be asked to contribute :

-investigating in the nuclear sector : how to access data ? How to communicate data ? In other words, how to organise the search for data with a number of different players - doctors, industrialists... ?

-man and organisations network : how to carry out risk management and industrial safety in complex organisations such as those in the nuclear sector, be they civil or military – especially with their supervisory authorities and their subcontractors ?

-nuclear areas : how to manage the integration of nuclear facilities in a populated area ? How to deal with the waste ? How to set out the boundaries of a contaminated area ?

In tandem, two "Civic evening events", open to the general public, have been organised. The idea is to draw the public into a dialogue with individuals, to get their perspective, and increase their awareness of the issues involved. These evening events will be organised in liaison with the Institut Kervégan, a think tank on economic and societal issues in the western France area, and whose ambition is  " to encourage the cross-cutting of knowledge and analyses between generations, disciplines and professions".

 In the future there will be other "Journées du risque", with different themes : endocrine disrupters in 2017, then digital society in 2018. And again, the many actors from different horizons will be contributing.


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