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Acceptable Risks

Politics, Policy, and Risky Technologies

C. F. Larry Heimann

Publication Year: 1997

Complex and risky technologies--technologies such as new drugs for the treatment of AIDS that promise great benefits to our society but carry significant risks--pose many problems for political leaders and the policy makers responsible for overseeing them. Public agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration are told by political superiors not to inhibit important technological advances and may even be charged with promoting such development but must also make sure that no major accidents occur under their watch. Given the large costs associated with catastrophic accidents, the general public and elected officials often demand reliable or failure-free management of these technologies and have little tolerance for the error. Research in this area has lead to a schism between those who argue that it is possible to have reliable management techniques and safely manage complex technologies and others who contend that such control is difficult at best. In this book C. F. Larry Heimann advances an important solution to this problem by developing a general theory of organizational reliability and agency decision making. The book looks at both external and internal influences on reliability in agency decision making. It then tests theoretical propositions developed in a comparative case study of two agencies involved with the handling of risky technologies: NASA and the manned space flight program and the FDA's handling of pharmaceuticals--particularly new AIDS therapies. Drawing on concepts from engineering, organizational theory, political science, and decision theory, this book will be of interest to those interested in science and technology policy, bureaucratic management and reform, as well as those interested in health and space policy. C. F. Larry Heimann is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Michigan State University.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. vii

Figures and Tables

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi

Complex and risky technologies are an engine for economic growth in our society. Nonetheless, these new technologies also pose many problems for political leaders and the policymakers responsible for overseeing them. While some elements in our society may wish to tum back the clock to a simpler time, the truth of the matter is that...

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pp. xiii-xiv

The process of seeing this book through from an idea to a published manuscript has been a long one indeed. I have many people to thank, starting with some of my professors in graduate school. Bill Lowry served as my adviser in graduate school and has continued to read my work and comment on it over the years. Not only is he an insightful professor, he is a good friend, and I am grateful for his help. John Gilmour and Jack...

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Chapter 1. Understanding Agency Failure

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pp. 1-15

On January 28, 1986, the entire nation focused on a single event. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed in a powerful explosion fifty thousand feet above the Kennedy Space Center. The losses resulting from this catastrophe were quite high. Seven astronauts, including Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe, were killed...

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Chapter 2. Reliable Decision Making and the Influence of Political Incentives

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pp. 17-35

In the months that followed the Challenger disaster, it was revealed that NASA had known about the problem of the eroding O-rings well in advance of the accident. Many commentators portrayed the decision to launch the ill-fated mission in light of such information as an irrational one. Performing a simple cost-benefit analysis would seem to support...

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Chapter 3. Shifting Political Incentives at NASA and the FDA

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pp. 37-70

Unfortunately, it is difficult to eliminate type I and type II errors at the same time. Allocating resources or employing personnel in such a way as to reduce the incidence of one type of failure often serves to increase the probability that the other form of failure will occur. For example, it will be shown in the next chapter that organizational structures that limit type...

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Chapter 4. Organizational Structure and the Design of Reliable Systems

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pp. 71-100

As I have shown in the last chapter, both NASA and the FDA in the 1980s had to contend with growing political pressure to reduce the likelihood of potential type II failures. In response to these demands, we might expect that each agency instituted some significant organizational changes. This expectation, however, raises a number of important questions. What exactly...

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Chapter 5. Subordinate Expertise and Reliable Organizations

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pp. 101-128

It was established in the previous chapter that reorganization can affect the reliability of agency decisions. That is important when we consider that one of the more popular activities of politicians involved in administrative affairs is to reorganize the bureaucracy. Of course, there are a number of reasons why this practice is so prevalent. In some cases, as in the Nixon...

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Chapter 6. Systems versus Components: Seeking Greater Reliability at NASA and the FDA

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pp. 129-162

Wernher von Braun, the father of modem rocketry, once said, "We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming."1 The success of the space program, however, has as much to do with organizational management as it does with technological advancement. Without large-scale cooperation within NASA and between other agencies, reaching our...

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Chapter 7. Acceptable Risks

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pp. 163-176

At the beginning of this book, concern was expressed over a single, dramatic incident: the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger. Given NASA's long history of reliable performance, such a dramatic failure seemed almost inconceivable. Further, as evidence following the accident revealed major technical problems with the shuttle, it was seemingly irrational...


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pp. 177-183


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pp. 185-188

E-ISBN-13: 9780472023264
E-ISBN-10: 0472023268
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472108138
Print-ISBN-10: 0472108131

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 26 figures, 2 tables
Publication Year: 1997

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • Technology -- Risk assessment.
  • United States. Food and Drug Administration.
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