On Balance: Attending the SBCA Annual Conference: A Perspective from a Recent Ph.D.

Friday, May 11, 2018

By Dan Hudson

I am a Reliability Engineer and Risk Analyst for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission  (USNRC). The USNRC is the Federal agency responsible for licensing and regulating civilian uses of nuclear materials to ensure public health and safety are adequately protected. In addition to performing risk analyses of commercial nuclear power plants, I contribute to an ongoing effort to enhance the USNRC’s guidelines for performing benefit-cost analysis (BCA) to evaluate proposed regulatory actions.

This year, for the first time, I attended the annual SBCA conference, which was held in Washington, D.C. on March 14-16, 2018. As a relatively new member of the SBCA community and first time SBCA conference attendee, I was delighted by the breadth and depth of the presentations and discussions. The breadth was evident in the range of topics, which extended from underlying theory to practical analysis to policy implications. The depth was evident in the discussions following many of the presentations, which often examined critical data, the significance of the results, or ways to improve the analysis.

The conference began with professional development workshops that addressed three contemporary topics: (1) retrospective BCA , (2) techniques for promoting the use of evidence and BCA results to policymakers , and (3) valuing changes in health and longevity in BCA . The remainder of the conference facilitated the exchange of information and ideas through a combination of formal and informal interactions. The formal methods included a keynote address (which SBCA President Don Kenkel highlights in a companion article ), a plenary session, and concurrent technical sessions in which presentations were often coupled with a designated discussant. This use of a discussant was a feature I had not previously experienced that I found to be quite valuable in summarizing and integrating main ideas, offering a critical perspective, or posing questions to stimulate discussion.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the Friday plenary session , in which four former Administrators of the U.S. Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)  shared their experiences with regulatory impact analysis and their prognosis for the current administration. These individuals—Sally Katzen  (1993-1997), John Graham  (2001-2006), Susan Dudley  (2007-2009), and Howard Shelanski  (2013-2017)—expressed diverse opinions that were sometimes at odds; the session was in some ways a lesson on how to engage in healthy debate with people who may not share your political views or party affiliation. From the Q&A session that followed, a call to action that pertained directly to me appeared to emerge: risk analysts and economists need to work better together to ensure that risk analyses performed to provide input to BCAs are rigorous and address the information needs of the BCAs.

Information and ideas were also exchanged informally, especially through numerous opportunities to network and engage with other attendees. These opportunities enabled me to have more personal and detailed conversations with presenters and other attendees about their work than was possible during the technical sessions. Moreover, I was struck by how friendly and approachable people were—especially the distinguished scholars and practitioners who are widely considered to be leaders in BCA and who showed genuine interest in me and my work. Students, early career professionals, or people new to the Society would feel welcome and at ease in this environment.

Insights I obtained from attending the conference will undoubtedly influence my work. In addition to learning about new developments in valuing fatal and non-fatal health risks—an area we have been addressing as part of our effort to enhance the USNRC’s regulatory analysis guidelines—I discovered ongoing research I might not have learned about if I had not attended the conference. Notable examples included: (1) application of extreme value theory to estimate the benefits of U.S. Coast Guard regulations that affect maritime accident risk, which—like nuclear power plant accident risk—has a distribution that is positively skewed due to low-probability, high-consequence events; and (2) use of value of information (VOI) analysis at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to optimize the allocation of limited analytical resources among multiple BCAs conducted in parallel. Perhaps most importantly, the conference enabled me to forge relationships with individuals who are working in areas of mutual interest, thereby planting the seeds for future collaboration and information exchange. I now have a much larger network of resources to utilize in my risk analysis and BCA work.Overall, I look forward to attending the premier event of the SBCA for years to come. I hope to renew the connections I made this year and to make new ones at the 2019 conference .

Dan Hudson is the current Secretary of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis. Dan maintains professional certifications in analytics and in public health and holds a B.S. degree with summa cum laude honors in Aerospace Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy, an M.S. degree in Risk Analysis from the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. degree in Risk Sciences and Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University.

 An employee of the USNRC prepared this article on his own time apart from his regular duties. The USNRC has neither approved nor disapproved its technical content. Any views presented are those of the employee and do not reflect an official position of the USNRC.