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UNPICK: Understanding Public Risk Concerns: An Investigation into the social perception, interpretation and communication of tree health risks


Led by Dr Clive Potter, Imperial College London


The surge in media coverage and public concern in late 2012 following confirmation that the causal agent of Chalara ash dieback, Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus , had been identified in the UK took many by surprise. Over a period of weeks, the threat to tree health from this and a range of other pests and diseases became a major focus of public debate, drawing  attention to the role that  individuals and communities will need to play in the future prevention and better management of tree disease outbreaks. The public response to Chalara prompts deeper questions about the nature of often rapidly evolving public risk understandings and the social and cultural factors which shape them, however. These need to be better understood if policymakers and risk managers are to more effectively engage with publics and to build trust in platforms such as Defra’s Plant Health Risk Register. 


This project will use a range of social science methods to compare the public reaction to, and varying degrees of involvement with, three recent tree disease outbreaks in the UK (ash dieback, ramorum blight and oak processionary moth ). We will explore how individuals encounter tree pests and diseases in different contexts and assess the role of media coverage and various forms of risk communication in raising awareness. The project will examine how concern has developed over time and identify the different ‘hazard sequences’ that may have influenced perceptions and understandings of risk in these cases. It will contribute to the policy evidence base by delineating the nature of public concern about this important issue and drawing lessons for future risk communication and engagement.



Nursery stock displaying the ‘Grown in Britain’ label:  Image © Helen Bayliss



C:\Users\Helen\Pictures\2013\9. September 2013\IMAG1892.jpg

Woodland visitors may be among the first to encounter tree pests and diseases:

Image © Helen Bayliss