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Confronting radical uncertainty - POSTPONED

Scientific meeting


The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG


This meeting is postponed. More details to follow.

Royal Society Science+ meeting organised by Professor David Tuckett, Dr David Good and Professor Leonard Smith.

Radical uncertainty

In this meeting we will focus on “real life” decision-making in Government, Business and the Third Sector–decisions such as those about climate mitigation and preserving our environment; policy priorities in health and education; new product, organizational and regulatory innovation; when and how to intervene in humanitarian or other crises overseas; how to maintain cyber and other forms of security; what macroeconomic policies to use to maximise the wellbeing of citizens; how to minimize social and mental discontent; etc. 

All these decisions require those making them to draw on available resources so they can imagine both the futures they hope to create with the help of others and possible ways of achieving these futures, or not. 

In the five panel sessions during the conference, we will use the Radical Uncertainty framework proposed below to: 

  • Discuss the experience of a group of very senior decision-makers (Panel 1).
  • Debate some of the core academic approaches to decision-making coming from cognitive science, mathematics, statistics and operational research (Panel 2). 
  • Hear about relevant contemporary research into AI, social and affective neuroscience and “conviction narrative theory” (Panel 3).
  • Discuss several pilot projects aimed at helping decision-makers to confront radical uncertainty (Panel 4).
  • Think about what sort of further research can help (Panel 5). 

The aim is to test in discussion between decision-makers and scientists from across a wide academic spectrum whether there are radically new opportunities for research and organizational arrangements that are likely to improve decision-making by treating uncertainty as opportunity across the policy areas mentioned above. 

We propose a new framework for researching and making such decisions in which we conceive them as made in Radical Uncertainty, with the meaning that, at the time decision-makers decide, they can reasonably imagine but cannot know, the outcome of their actions, which are likely to unfold through time.

Within the framework, the central idea is that uncertainty is an opportunity to be embraced as well as something that is feared and avoided. The core implication is that ambivalence - the existence of reasons for and against what is being chosen which will automatically also evoke approach and avoidance emotions – will remain present in such decision-making until the uncertainty is resolved, whether this is recognised or not. In addition, it may last a long time. 

The schedule of talks and speaker biographies are available below.

Attending this event

This meeting has been postponed. More details to follow.

Enquiries: contact the Scientific Programmes team

Event organisers

Select an organiser for more information

Schedule of talks

27 April


Session 1

3 talks Show detail Hide detail


Gabriela Ramos, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), UK

09:00-09:30 Welcome by Royal Society and lead organiser Professor David Tuckett

09:30-10:30 Panel 1: Real world decision making in government, business and the economy

Lord Gus O'Donnell, UK
Professor John Kay FBA, St John’s College, University of Oxford, UK
Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller LG DCB FMedSci, Wellcome Trust, UK
Dr Trevor Maynard, Lloyd's of London, UK


To what extent is radical uncertainty a feature of the decision-making context in government and business? What is the essence of the sorts of decision-making challenges that have to be faced? How is ambivalence and contest recognised and handled? How is information processed? What is the role for quantification, formal modelling, AI and experimentation? What are the resistances? How are opportunities missed? What goes wrong? How can mistakes or paralysis be prevented? How far is useful feedback available? When is groupthink operative and how might it be avoided? What might be helpful? The speakers will provide their own views and examples and more.

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10:30-11:00 Coffee

11:00-12:30 Panel 1: discussion

12:30-13:30 Lunch


Session 2

2 talks Show detail Hide detail


Professor Carole Mundell, University of Bath, UK

13:30-15:00 Panel 2: When quantification and analysis can help and how to use it

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Germany
Jürgen Jost, Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences, Leipzig, Germany
Professor Leonard Smith, University of Oxford, UK
Professor Neil Stewart, University of Warwick, UK


Thinking about the “radical uncertainty” characteristics of decisions faced by government, business and the third sector mentioned so far, to what extent can questions about what to do be answered and options calculated with recourse to scientific analysis and model-making? What support tools are available and how should they be used? How far is existing knowledge of how humans make these kinds of decisions relevant? Do we have knowledge about how things go wrong and how we might be able to avoid that?  Can quantitative research skills be mixed with research understanding? How they are used in practice? How can we make current research into decision-making relevant for practice?

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15:00-15:30 Coffee

15:30-17:00 Panel 2: discussion


Poster session and drinks reception

28 April


Session 3

2 talks Show detail Hide detail

09:00-10:30 Panel 3: The Role of Artificial Intelligence, social and affective neuroscience, and emotions and narratives and in human decision-making

Professor Aikaterini (Katerina) Fotopoulou, CEHP Research Department, University College London, UK
Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore FBA, University of Cambridge, UK
Professor David Tuckett, University College London, UK
Professor Ernest Davis, New York University, USA


Thinking about the challenges of making radically uncertain decisions, usually in groups, what can neuroscience tell us about how we can meet them? What do we see? What do we recall? How do we anticipate and plan? How do human brains allow us to imagine the future? What is the role of emotion in the brain? Are we cooperative? How do we process information? Is there a sense in which we can say there are narratives in the brain? Can AI help? How do machines imagine the future? Do machines have common sense? Can they help us to co-operate? What might be ambivalence in the brain and in a machine? What might be the role of narratives in acting to implement plans? 

Show speakers

10:30-11:00 Coffee

11:00-12:30 Panel 3: discussion

12:30-13:30 Lunch


Session 4

2 talks Show detail Hide detail


Bronwen Maddox, Institute for Government, UK

13:30-15:30 Panel 4 (including discussion): Confronting Radical Uncertainty in practice: Pilot projects

Dr Erica Thompson, Centre for the Analysis of Time Series, London School of Economics, UK
Dr Tobias Pforr, University of Reading, UK
Dr Ben Bowles, SOAS University of London and London School of Economics, UK
Dr Kris De Meyer, King's College London, UK


How do decision-makers confront the uncertainties they face when they are asked to try to prevent humanitarian or other crises, imagine and prepare for future risks, decide whether it not to deploy resources before an emergency has happened, create processes for building and planning that make infrastructure resilient to future events, etc.? What new ideas flowing from a radical uncertainty perspective are useful and worth exploring? Can we discern any general principles?

Speakers will describe pilot projects designed in collaboration with the Cabinet Office and Humanitarian charities.

Show speakers

15:30-16:00 Coffee

16:00-17:00 Concluding dialogue: building a cross disciplinary research agenda

David Good, University of Cambridge, UK


Professor Dame Lyn Gladden (Executive Chair at the EPSRC and Cambridge University) and Dr David Good (King’s College, Cambridge and CRUISSE network) will discuss with each other and the audience themes emerging from the two days, what we have learned and what we need to do.


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Confronting radical uncertainty - POSTPONED

27 - 28 April 2020

The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK
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