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Decisions on Complex Interdisciplinary Problems of Health and Environmental Risk (D-CIPHER) (2017-2018)


2017-07-01 19:01:45 - 2017-07-31 19:01:45

Project Objectives

This project is based on the view that as a society we could be making better decisions to address risks to the environment and human health, be they anthropogenic or naturally occurring stressors and events. An important step in enabling such improvement is to better understand the interconnected physical, social and temporal factors along the life cycle of a set of decisions related to characterizing and managing risks. Understanding how and why previous environmental risk scenarios unfolded the way they did from a physical, biological, legal and social perspective is critical to our ability to address future risks to the environment and health more successfully.
The goal of this Bass Connections project is to improve holistic understanding of health and environmental risks through the design, research and generation of a comprehensive case study profile motivated by a specific salient risk and then expanding the scope to include associated contexts, decisions and outcomes.

The 2017-2018 project team will focus on the case of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and their substitutes, discussing tradeoffs among risks and decisions related to the original green chemistry approach of developing CFCs, through the discovery of ozone layer effects and now the current decisions being considered around the climate change impacts of these compounds.

CFCs are a type of organic compound commonly known by the DuPont brand name Freon. They were invented in the 1920s and used widely as propellants, refrigerants and solvents. But in 1973, chemists at UC Irvine discovered that the chlorine atoms in CFCs could cause depletion of ozone in the stratosphere, allowing more UV radiation to reach the earth's surface. The U.S. banned CFCs in aerosol spray cans in 1978. Industry, and European officials, initially opposed such regulation, but the discovery of the %u201Cozone hole%u201D in 1986, a reversal in industry strategy and new policy analyses led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that phased out CFCs. Unfortunately, their main replacements, first HCFCs and now HFCs, are potent greenhouse gases. Amendments to the Montreal Protocol are now reducing HCFCs and HFCs%u2014leading to new substitutes. This continuing history offers multiple opportunities to analyze technology, science, policy, decisions, options and tradeoffs.

The project team will bring together focused research expertise from multiple disciplines to tell the story of (and reconsider) this scenario from multiple angles. The resulting profile will provide a systematic unpacking of what may have originally been seen as an isolated hazard but turned out to be more complex, providing context in terms of history, science, social science, uncertainty, regulation, public narrative and trade offs among interconnected aspects. The intent is to support a broader understanding of what happened, how and why, and to reconsider how such decisions might be better made in the future. The profile will offer a new interdisciplinary analysis of these decisions, akin to a business school case but addressing risks. It could then be used in future courses related to decision making for health and environmental risks.

D-CIPHER will consist of an academic year and a summer-long effort resulting in a case study profile that examines each "decision node" along the story arc of the risk from a variety of vantage points. In chronological order, each key decision point will be evaluated, with modules representing different domain expertise, assessing what was known, assumed, decided and how that determined the path forward -and how each decision might have been improved.

Project Opportunities

The team will include approximately eight to ten students (graduate and undergraduate) and two to four postdocs in addition to faculty.Each thematic module will be addressed by a dedicated interdisciplinary sub-team for each of the decision nodes, with the possibility of team members rotating between different thematic modules as the project progresses through the decision nodes. A doctoral student or postdoc project manager will be selected to coordinate progress, and each of the thematic modules will include a leader that could be a faculty member, postdoc or doctoral student.In addition to the technical and policy research, the experience will be augmented with opportunities to engage with the people who have been involved in the decisions being studied. Near the end of the fall semester and/or at the beginning of the spring semester, team members will take one or more field trips to visit, for example, the North Carolina Department of Public Health, the US Environmental Protection Agency, former government officials, industry and civil society groups. Additionally, the project will host one or more visiting speakers with insights on the events of the particular decision nodes being studied.

Students will write memos on the key decision nodes, evaluating the decisions actually made at key points, advocating what should have been decided at that time given what was then understood and proposing how to address this problem in the future. Students will also research and compile, in stages, a full case study document that presents the overall history and multiple decision nodes, for use in future education and training courses/exercises. Students will engage in reflection/feedback writing exercises, at least once each semester. Overall grading will be based on the students’ research, decision memos, reflection exercises, class participation and the full case study report.

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