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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine


by Denise Caruso ~ December 18, 2006.
Permalink | Filed under: Hybrid Vigor, Collaboration and Sensemaking, 21st Century Risk, 'Intervention', Planetary Life.

… a.k.a. “what else I was doing while I wrote Intervention.”

Based on some ideas that I started exploring with Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon shortly after I wrote my first paper on risk and genomics, in early 2004 we got funding from the National Science Foundation to see if we could get started on designing a new methodology for assessing emerging bio-risks.

The project was called “Understanding Genomics Risks: An Integrated Scenario and Analytic Approach,” and it was funded through NSF’s Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences program.

Our primary focus was on the risks that might result from growing and harvesting transgenic pig organs for transplants, a.k.a. xenotransplantation. (The pigs in question have been genetically altered so their biochemistry doesn’t trigger a rejection reaction in humans. This isn’t theoretical.)

The centerpiece of the xeno project was a day-long meeting at UC Berkeley, hosted by Steve Weber, director of the Institute of International Studies. We brought together a panel of experts that included an agricultural ecologist, an economist, an MBA/MD, a medical anthropologist, a political scientist, and a zoologist and vet who’d been a senior executive at USDA, and got them talking about the problem.

What they came up with is at the core of Chapter 11 in Intervention, “Putting Pigs to the Test.” Most people who’ve read it — as well as the panelists who attended the meeting — have said that it makes a pretty compelling case for why we need to change how we conduct risk assessments for new biotechnologies.

The entire story of how we got to that meeting in Berkeley didn’t make it into the book, but I wish it had. It’s a terrific object lesson in collaborative problem-solving and decision making. I’ll either post it here at some point when it makes sense, or maybe I’ll see if I can publish it in a magazine or a journal somewhere.

In any case, the project was quite successful. As a result, we got:
a) a tremendously promising start on this new methodology for emerging risks;
b) a paper in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty; and
c) a chance to use the work in a different and even more critical setting: evaluating the risks of avian flu.

In regards to (c), and to make a long story short, in the fall of 2005, one of the xeno panelists recommended me to a group of people (specifically, Global Business Network and Larry Brilliant) who were designing a meeting on avian flu called Pandefense 1.0.

Pandefense 1.0 was an interdisciplinary “think tank” and exercise in emergency preparedness for a possible avian flu pandemic. It brought the world’s top flu and vaccine experts, epidemiologists, bird specialists, animal pathologists, and public health professionals together with leading thinkers from philanthropy, academia, business, scenario planning, decision theory, risk communication, and the investment community.

Its goal was to explore the wide range of consequences — public health, economic, political and cultural — of an avian flu pandemic, and most importantly, to identify and alert decision makers and the public to the interventions that could be taken immediately to avoid or mitigate a disaster.

Hybrid Vigor’s participation in Pandefense led to an invitation to co-edit a special Forethought section, called ‘Preparing for a Pandemic,’ in the May 1, 2006, edition of Harvard Business Review. Here’s the editor’s letter introducing the section.

Of course, I dragged Baruch Fischhoff into participating as well, and this led to the publication of yet another paper, in a new journal called Global Public Health.

The upshot of all of this activity for me, personally, was a growing belief that the risk assessment methods I’d been studying and working on with Baruch had the potential to have a tremendous positive impact on getting out in front of emerging infectious diseases, in addition to the benefit it could bring to the assessment of commercial biotech products.

I’m now working on raising the money to fund a couple of new projects in this area with several of the people I met at, and through, my involvement with Pandefense.

Wish us luck: this kind of work is of critical importance, and it is ludicrous how difficult it is to get funding for prevention and preparedness, unless it directly provides cash to a specific industry.


  1. heemun

    Could you get the report “Managing the new Realities of risk”?
    I really want to read it.

    thank you

  2. Denise Caruso

    Yes, will do. I’ll try to get permission to post it first, though. Thanks!

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