Elisabeth Paté-Cornell


Elisabeth Paté-Cornell


For over forty years, Elisabeth Paté-Cornell has been at the international forefront of applying probabilistic risk analysis methods to complex systems and system engineering problems, including space, medicine, energy, and cyber security. Historically, risk has been estimated as a single probability of failure or as a mean of potential losses. The probabilistic method, however, considers the different failure scenarios and describes their consequences as a distribution function, which is extremely useful in making systems-level decisions. While Paté-Cornell has worked tirelessly to enhance the theory of engineering risk analysis, she has also focused on practical, real-world solutions as the ultimate goal. One hallmark of her work has been a strong emphasis on the link between organizational factors, human behaviors—including what we now call “safety culture”—and the system performance and failure risk. Her work has made it possible to understand the underlying causes of accidents (for instance, on offshore oil platforms) and, looking forward, to show the range of possible outcomes under real-world uncertainty to give a manager or decision maker deep insight into possible consequences. Her contributions to society in understanding and managing risks include the optimization of warning systems (when to issue alerts to allow for proactive defenses), the mitigation of patient risks in anesthesia, and the evaluation of the risks of failure of the thermal protection system of NASA’s Space Shuttle. She also explored and developed risk insights in the airline industry, including a risk-analysis approach to tradeoffs (for example, between schedule delays and maintenance). She also published several papers on nuclear safety and analyzed the reactions from the public, the media, and government agencies to the Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear accidents. Her recent work has focused on improvements of the monitoring of satellites to avoid collisions in low-earth orbit and on the use of game theory in risk analysis with applications that have included counterterrorism, and cyber security.

A member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the French Académie des Technologies, Paté-Cornell is the Burt and Deedee McMurtry Professor in the School of Engineering and Founding Chair of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA.

Further reading

Elisabeth Paté-Cornell oral history