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


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 technologies, processes and products we develop have impacts on the environment and our health—some intended, some unintended. Likewise, the policies adopted to regulate the risks of such developments may themselves pose unintended consequences, including risk-risk tradeoffs. Some product and policy advances intended to deliver benefits by minimizing one target risk turn out to have created new risks. These complexities pose challenges for both private innovation and public oversight. They also present opportunities to improve understanding and decision making in a complex world.

The challenge of assessing, understanding and managing both target and ancillary risks from anthropogenic actions, natural hazards and public policies requires integrating expertise from a broad and disparate array of disciplines. Yet education, training and professional practice regarding environmental and health risks often develop within isolated silos of expertise. People come to understand environmental and health risks and decisions from the vantage point of their individual discipline. There remain key aspects of underlying assumptions, core knowledge, decision constraints and outcomes that are not typically woven into the full story of the topic in a holistic way.

Project Description

The goal of this Bass Connections project is to improve holistic understanding of decisions about complex public health and environmental risks through the design and generation of comprehensive case study profiles on specific salient risks and related decisions. The project team will bring together focused research expertise from a diverse array of disciplines to tell the story of (and reconsider) past risk-based scenarios from multiple angles.

In 2017-2018, the case study will focus on fluorinated chemicals. Introduced to replace toxic ammonia as a refrigerant in the 1920s, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were later found to deplete the stratospheric ozone layer. Bans resulted in ozone protection, but primary replacement chemicals are potent greenhouse gases, and some may be flammable or toxic. Constructing this 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, natural science, social science, uncertainty, regulation, tradeoffs and public narrative. The intent is to support a broader understanding of what happened, how and why, to reconsider past decisions and envision how such decisions might be better made in the future.

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.

Modules at each of the decision nodes will include interdisciplinary considerations across the following themes:

  1. The engineering and scientific dimensions of the situation, including the characterization of the stressor (or event, depending on the nature of the case study at hand), exposure and hazard information characterizing the risk(s), modeling tools and the epistemological landscape
  2. The historical context of the risk, including social, political, business and cultural considerations
  3. Stakeholder perspectives, media and public coverage of the risk(s), and relevant cultural factors bearing on the decision-making processes
  4. The legal and regulatory framework, including statutes, agencies, oversight and potential new regulatory policies
  5. Economic, behavioral, cultural, ethical and sociological considerations involved in identifying and evaluating risk mitigation options.

These themes are defined in order to establish a template for potential replication, but with intentional flexibility for teams to own the design of scope and approach during the research process.

Anticipated Outcomes

Case study profile document with multiple disciplinary modules; public event/exhibition to showcase the work


Summer 2017 – Summer 2018

  • Summer 2017: PhD, JD or master’s student conducts initial research on the selected environmental and health risk decision topic to build the skeleton of the case study profile
  • Fall 2017: Team members attend a weekly seminar with lectures/interactive discussion sessions from experts across the various relevant disciplines, as well as a possible field trip, tailored to relevance for the case study; break into five subteams to begin profiling each of the submodules and decision nodes
  • Spring 2018: Divide into teams to generate modules of what will become one integrated case study; an additional field trip may be taken; present case study modules at a final presentation/performance event
  • Summer 2018: PhD, JD or master’s student finalizes and publishes online the case study profile document by the end of June 2018

Team Outcomes to Date

DeCIPHER: The Drama of CFCs, Ozone Depletion, and Climate Change (Mark Borsuk, Kathleen M. Burns, Ryan Calder, Christian Capobianco, Tyler Felgenhauer, Christine Gerbode, Christine Ogilvie Hendren, Elizabeth Hunsaker, Francesca Martella Kehl, Sandy Kendall, Jason Y. Lee, Tasfia Nayem, Holly Ren, Drew Shindell, Amalia Turner, Micaela Unda, Priscilla Wald, Ai Wang, Jonathan B. Wiener), presented at Bass Connections Showcase, April 18, 2018


Tasfia Nayem

Lizzie Hunsaker

This Team in the News

Narrating Climate Change and Weathering Environmental Risk

New Year’s Eve in the City of Oaks

Project on Health and Environmental Risk Invites Students to Join Team in Spring

Designing for Extremes: CEE Program Challenges Students to Plan for the Unexpected

See related team DECIPHER: Case Studies in Drinking Water Quality (2018-2019).

no CFCs 1989

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Lori Bennear, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Mark Borsuk, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering*
  • Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School of the Environment*
  • Christine Hendren, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering*
  • Prasad Kasibhatla, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Drew Shindell, Nicholas School of the Environment-Earth and Ocean Sciences*
  • Peter Ubel, Fuqua School of Business
  • Priscilla Wald, Arts & Sciences-English
  • Jonathan Wiener, Duke Law*
  • Robert Wolpert, Arts & Sciences-Statistical Science

/graduate Team Members

  • Kathleen Burns, English-PHD
  • Christian Capobianco, Bioethics and Sci Policy - AM
  • Christine Gerbode, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy
  • Elizabeth Hunsaker, Chemistry-PHD
  • Yongwoo Lee, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy
  • Tasfia Nayem, Master of Environmental Management
  • Amalia Turner, Civil & Environmental Engg-PHD
  • Ai Wang, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Alexandra Fisher, Public Policy Studies (AB), Religion (AB2)
  • Sandra Kendall
  • Francesca Martella Kehl, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Holly Ren
  • Micaela Unda, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)