Using the concept of risk for transdisciplinary assessment

By Greg Schreiner

Greg Schreiner (biography)

Global development aspirations, such as those endorsed within the Sustainable Development Goals, are complex. Sometimes the science is contested, the values are divergent, and the solutions are unclear. How can researchers help stakeholders and policy-makers use credible knowledge for decision-making, which accounts for the full range of trade-off implications?

‘Assessments’ are now commonly used.Following their formal adoption by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in the early 1990s, they have been used at the science-society-policy interface to tackle global questions relating to biodiversity and ecosystems services, human well-being, ozone depletion, water management, agricultural production, and many more.

Given the nature of the questions they address, assessments are transdisciplinary, involving integration of different knowledge domains. In this piece, I briefly explore what an assessment is and then describe the assessment for shale gas development in South Africa, where we used the concept of risk as the integrative framework.

What is an assessment?

Scientific assessment is used to evaluate the overall status of knowledge on complex problems relevant to societies. They are designed to provide a connection between issues and people, by providing a summary of the ‘state of the science’. During these sometimes elaborate processes, teams of knowledgeable people take stock of all the various evidence relating to a complex issue. Balance and the elimination of bias is sought as far as possible; the most established means is by creating diverse writing teams representing a range of interests and/or positions, coupled with extensive and transparent review by all stakeholders. Increasingly, nation states have seen the potential benefits of assessments in helping to navigate complex and socially contested issues.

The South African shale gas development assessment

In South Africa, the most recently completed assessment was undertaken for shale gas, where unconventional gas development is proposed within the fragile and arid environment of the Central Karoo. Over the past decade, shale gas in South Africa has been a fiercely contested issue, debated across two polarised ‘camps’: those promoting it to enhance economic opportunity, and those encouraging the notion that it will spell certain social and ecological catastrophe.

In order to provide some grounding to the narrative on shale gas and potentiate convergence, both domestically and globally, the South African government commissioned a holistic assessment of the issue. This included inputs from over 300 authors and reviewers, drawn from a diversity of backgrounds, disciplines and world views. It included continuous stakeholder engagement processes throughout the different phases of the project, over 24 months. As part of the engagement with society, seventeen key topics emerged as areas of concern to stakeholders. These ranged from water, to geophysics, to economics, to social fabric, to heritage features, to biodiversity, to ‘sense of place’, and many others (see full list and other project details at: These topics would come to form the chapters of the published assessment.

The spread of the main topics crossed many traditionally distinct disciplines, from natural, physical and social sciences; plus concerns related to non-scientific values, such as economics and ‘sense of place’. These issues, not typically dealt with within the scope of purely science-based assessments, proved to be of great importance to stakeholders and hence an issue on which policy-makers needed clear guidance.

We were faced with the challenging task of developing a framework to integrate the differing knowledge domains for the assessment. We needed an approach practical enough to produce usable, replicable outcomes, at the same time being understandable to society, while adaptive enough to account for complexity. After deep consideration and consultation with experts and stakeholders, we settled on using the concept of risk.

Using risk as the integrative framework for assessment

We chose risk as it had been applied successfully in other transdisciplinary assessments, such as those for the IPCC. In addition, the concept of risk is widely understood across the natural, physical and social sciences, plus within non-scientific domains, such as economics. Most importantly, the risk framework allows for a ‘calibration’ exercise, which means that risk categories across the different disciplines are scalable and analogous – whether the assessment is of poverty, people or plants, the idea is that relative risk, across disciplines, is comparable. This enables decision-making based upon accurate trade-off options.

The first step was to define the key impacts, in other words, what will actually happen on, or beneath, the ground. An impact was understood as a human-induced physical event or trend that may cause loss of life, injury, or other health effects. Once we had defined all the impacts across the 17 key topics (these numbered into the hundreds), we had to determine the risk of those impacts. Risk was framed as a result of likelihood multiplied, qualitatively, by consequence.

Likelihood was estimated against a common framework of probability ranging from extremely unlikely to very likely. Consequence was determined by considering the nature of an impact, the level of exposure of an entity to that impact and the vulnerability of the receiving environment or entity. It was recognised that unlikely impacts of extreme or severe consequence can be just as risky as those with higher likelihood of occurrence but lower consequences per impact.

In order to ensure consistency across the topics, the terms used to describe consequences—ranging from ‘slight’ to ‘extreme’—were calibrated for each topic. For example, for an impact to biodiversity and ecosystem services, slight meant ‘20% physical loss of a near threatened biodiversity habitat’, while extreme meant ‘80% loss of the same habitat’. Slight for an impact like air quality on human health meant ‘no adverse long-term health effects’, while extreme meant ‘significant injury likely to result in death’.

The consequence calibration exercise was undertaken for all 17 topics. This ensured reliability in the manner in which risks were measured, enabled integration across different topic disciplines and provided a common conceptual understanding and spatial interpretation of risk. Risk was assessed for each significant impact, on each different type of receiving environment, qualitatively (very low, low, moderate, high, very high) against a predefined set of criteria.

Risks were assessed ‘with’ and ‘without mitigation’, across three development scenarios and in relation to the baseline, where no development occurs. ‘Without mitigation’ assumed inadequate governance capacity, weak decision-making and non-compliance with regulatory requirements. ‘With mitigation’ assumed effective implementation of best-practice principles, adequate institutional governance capacity and responsible decision-making.

The assessment of the scenarios, both with and without mitigation led to an explicit difference between the assessed outcomes which provides decision-makers with practical estimation of the importance of strong governance and institutional functionality when managing shale gas development.

Did it work?

The impacts and associated risk profiles were made within explicit spatial units, meaning that the risk, across the scenarios, 50 years into the future, had a specific spatial footprint. The purpose of the spatial risk modelling exercise was to demonstrate the evolution of the risk profile across the scenarios considered, which accounts for the full lifecycle of shale gas development activities, and to test the efficacy of mitigation actions in reducing cumulative risk and identifying landscape thresholds across temporal range.

Integrating the assessment metrics and lingua franca meant that all results from the 17 topics were easily scalable and comparable, both in concept and spatial delineation. The nature of the transdisciplinary and participative assessment meant that the outcomes have been accepted by society, and the products which emerged from its results have found clear application in the national polity. The importance of good integration, undertaken by integration experts, is at the heart of determining the success of an assessment process, both in social acceptance and policy uptake.

What has your experience been with transdisciplinary assessments? What integrative frameworks have you used? Do you have similar or different experiences with risk assessment? I’d love to hear about them.

To find out more:

Scholes, R., Lochner, P., Schreiner, G., Snyman- Van der Walt, L. and de Jager, M. (eds.). (2016). Shale Gas Development in the Central Karoo: A Scientific Assessment of the Opportunities and Risks. Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Pretoria: South Africa. Online:

Schreiner, G.O., Snyman-Van der Walt, L. (2018). Risk Modelling of Shale Gas Development Scenarios in the Central Karoo. International Journal of Sustainable Development and Planning, 13, 2: 294-306. Online:

Biography: Greg Schreiner is a sustainability scientist working at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa. Over the last 8 years, his job has been to lead, manage and integrate a host of different assessment processes, within the oil and gas, renewable energy, and seawater desalination sectors. The intention of these assessments has been to bring the best possible science to South African decisions-makers and society. Greg is currently completing his PhD in measuring the effectiveness of scientific assessment processes in South Africa, undertaken through the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Greg was the manager of the South African Shale Gas Scientific Assessment, which was recognised by the International Association of Impact Assessment (IAIA) in 2017 for its contribution toward novel assessment practice. He has been a participant in both the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) assessment processes and in June 2017 he was recognised in the Mail & Guardian Top 40 Young South Africans.

2 thoughts on “Using the concept of risk for transdisciplinary assessment”

  1. Hi John
    Much appreciated. It’s interesting to see the similarity of the Michigan assessment compared to the one we ran for the Central Karoo (you can download the Summary for Policy-makers at if you are interested). Thanks very much for the paper on Integrated Assessments, I’m going through it now.
    Kind regards,

  2. Great post Greg! I completely agree that assessments like the one you’ve described can provide important contributions for particularly challenging topics. When the University of Michigan completed an assessment on High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing in the State of Michigan, the process was what kept the work moving forward and allowed for sometimes very different perspectives to be heard. Here are some resources to share for that project and some work which was done to look at the benefits of assessments.

    High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing in Michigan Integrated Assessment;

    Article from The Conversation on our process for that project;

    The Benefits of Integrated Assessment;


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