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.

Related Courses

Student team members may be interested in such optional courses as Uncertainty, Design and Optimization; Risk Regulation in the U.S., Europe and Beyond; Environmental Law; Energy Law, Innovation in the Life Sciences Industries, Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment, Innovation and Policy Entrepreneurship, Cost-benefit Analysis for Health and Environmental Policy, Air Quality: Human Exposure and Health Effects.

Anticipated Outcomes

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

Student Opportunities

The team will consist of members across all academic levels (undergraduate, graduate, postdoc) who are interested in developing a new, interlinked way to examine complex risk-based decisions, and will include expertise from a variety of disciplines including the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, law, policy, business and engineering. Regardless of educational focus, all members should: 1) desire to span boundaries and connect disciplines to tell a holistic story of decisions about risk; 2) be committed to designing and producing a variety of research products in support of this case study over the course of the year; and 3) be motivated to create a novel team approach that will lay the foundations for how future projects could create similar case studies on other scenarios.

Each thematic module will be addressed by a dedicated interdisciplinary subteam 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.


Summer 2017 – Summer 2018

Team meetings will likely take place on Thursday or Friday afternoons for 2–2.5 hours

  • 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


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Lori Bennear, Nicholas School - Environmental Sciences & Policy
Mark Borsuk, Pratt - Civil & Environmental Engineering*
Richard Di Giulio, Nicholas School*
Christine Hendren, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT)*
Prasad Kasibhatla, Nicholas School
Drew Shindell, Nicholas School
Peter Ubel, Fuqua School
Priscilla Wald, Trinity - English
Jonathan Wiener, Law School*
Robert Wolpert, Nicholas School

* denotes team leader