Communicating Science As Story: Don’t Let Your Research be Eclipsed

Eclipse.jpg

In the spring of 1970, I watched the normally innocuous moon gradually blot out the sun using a makeshift safe-watching camera (that is, a pinhole punched into a cardboard box) blanketing the east coast in eerie twilight darkness.

 

Forty-seven years later, the hype for the 2017 ‘Eclipse of the Century’ reached a fevered pitch as countless fascinated throngs crammed their way into a 70-mile-wide sliver of the country across 14 states to experience the sun’s disappearance once again, the first cross-country eclipse to occur since 1918. Campgrounds and solar events sold out a year ahead of time, while those ubiquitous solar glasses were selling out of stores by the thousands in the final days before the eclipse. A 5K/10K virtual race offered runners a finisher’s medal sporting a rotating lunar cover.

 

The “Great American Eclipse” spawned alien costumery, marriage proposals, and eclipse onesies for infants born the day of the event. According to the NASA, this eclipse was most observed, photographed, and documented eclipse in human history.

 

Millions of us watched transfixed as the moon gradually dimmed the sun, silenced birds, and turned down the temperature until it smudged out the sun entirely, briefly throwing the earth into an eerie twilight wreathed in a soft pink 360-degree sunset before suddenly releasing it from its dark imprisonment.

 

The eclipse’s rise to rock-star and dare I say, cult status in an era of strong political pushback against science and research is especially significant. The evening news is filled with examples of not only scientific ignorance, particularly in the high reaches of our government, but also willful denial of clear and substantial global changes in our climate. Long forgotten conspiracies of ages past, such as belief in a the flat earth, are experiencing a comeback, and 16.4 million American adults, equivalent to the population of Pennsylvania, believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

 

The Character of the Moon

So why the massive migration to witness pure science in action, for a mere one to two minutes of totality?

 

I venture to say that it had a lot to do with the way the story of the eclipse was presented in the weeks and months beforehand. Not only was it billed as ‘breathtaking,’ ‘phenomenal,’ and ‘the celestial event of the century’ (a title bestowed on the 1970 eclipse as well), the eclipse created its own microcosmic story, with a distinct beginning, dramatic arc, and resolution. Take this excerpt, for example, from an article posted on fivethirtyeight.com at the end of July:

The moon will slowly and inexorably slide in front of the sun, and our star’s light will slowly grow dimmer. Filtered through foliage, sunlight will appear on the ground as a smattering of crescents.

 

As more of the sun’s disk disappears, ripples of light and darkness called “shadow bands” will wiggle across the ground, the way sunlight seems to shimmy on the bottom of a swimming pool. They are a harbinger of the coming total eclipse. Birds will hasten back to roosts.

 

Then, at 10:15 a.m., in one of the most unusual coincidences in all of celestial mechanics, the moon will completely block the sun’s disk. In the final seconds, a dazzling ray of light, known as the diamond ring, will remain: It is sunlight filtering through valleys on the moon. Insects will thrum and chirp as if it’s dusk. The temperature will drop.
 

At once, the Oregon landscape will be drained of color. Only the sun’s atmosphere, called the corona, will be visible, appearing as a ghostly wreath of light licked by flames of pink and red.”
 

As told here, the moon is the main character that drives a compelling story of fast-moving mystery, spectacular images, increasing darkness, and even animal trauma, only to return the earth to business as usual in the end. Such vivid, brain-stimulating narrative will stick with us far longer than the more familiar “the moon passes between the earth and sun” description of what happens during a solar eclipse.

Turning Language Into Experience

Our brains are hardwired to respond to story—depending on the language used, our sensory and motor cortexes ‘light up’ when we hear content told as narrative—the same regions that would become active if we were to actually experience what is being communicated. Think of the contrast between saying ‘her hands were dried out from the cold’ vs. ‘her hands felt like prickly pine cones in the bitter cold.’
 

This is why metaphors are such a powerful tool for communicating scientific concepts. In an article discussing the molecular editor, CRISPR, Ian Haydon speaks of CRISPR as ‘molecular scissors’ … that will ‘snip target DNA only where you want them to.’ Because the concept of using scissors to snip thread is familiar to us, our brain (in particular, an emotional region known as the insula) immediately bridges the gap from abstract concept to personal experience.
 

Even thinking as a child could can help explain difficult concepts—during the final stages of the eclipse, I overheard one youngster sadly proclaim that the moon was turning back into the sun.
 

However, metaphorical language and story arcs are not typical features of scientific papers or content. Research scientists are trained not to inject personal opinion, politics, or emotion into their writings. While this guards against scientific bias, our carefully researched discoveries may never find their way to either policymakers or the general public.
 

SciComm on Steroids

In light of the current sientific pushback and cuts in funding the scientific communication community, or SciComm, has stepped up efforts to make science more palatable to the average layperson by helping scientists tell the story of their scientific passion to the non-science world. Scientists, in turn, are discovering the need to communicate how their research benefits the public in order to keep their funding flowing smoothly.
 

Alan Alda, most famously known as the wisecracking doctor “Hawkeye” on the hit series, M.A.S.H, has established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The Center helps scientists not only learn how to connect with their audience but also, to discern whether the audience is understanding what they are saying—a dynamic that is key for helping policymakers make sound decisions rooted in evidence-based science.

 

Sara ElShafie, a doctoral candidate in integrative biology, has developed a series of writing workshops for scientists based on storytelling strategies used by Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios. And Randy Olson, a marine biologist turned filmmaker, helps clients learn how to use visual media to communicate science in the ‘and...but...therefore’ (ABT) framework of storytelling.

 

These and other SciComm visionaries have tapped into the reality that science as story sells—that is, it sells the ideas and knowledge that boosts public awareness, generate funding, and influence policy decisions on all levels.

 

Putting It Into Practice

But how do you turn non-subjective, detailed, and complex research into a conversational narrative? I have included some references and resources to guide you along your storytelling journey. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

 

●                   Organize your content in an arc of introduction, conflict, and resolution. This arc can take the aforementioned form of ‘and...but….therefore;’ the story spine is another popular storytelling structure. Above all, be clear on the one main concept you want to communicate to your audience.

 

●                   Use your introduction or opening to connect with your audience emotionally, something that as a scientist may be difficult to do at first. Share with them what has made you passionate about your research. What inspired you to research your subject matter in the first place? What answers are you hoping to find? How would your findings and data help a member of the audience you are trying to reach. Once you’ve done that, then you can backup your story with facts and stats.

 

●                   And do not worry if your research did not produce conclusive results—after all, the nature of science is continual exploration and discovery. Research findings can often lead to new questions and the continuation of the scientific journey … take your audience on that journey with you.


An Eclipse to Remember

Because of its cross-country trajectory, the 2017 eclipse was seen by more Americans than any other. The startling image of the sun’s corona flaring out from behind the moon is a visual that will stay with us for a long time to come … and a story that will be passed down to the next generations, inspiring the next crop of future scientists.

But if nothing else, the great eclipse of 2017 will live on as a reminder that science is a story that needs to be told to all.

 

References

The Surprising Number of American Adults Who Think Chocolate Milk Comes From Brown Cows

Some Pretty Cool Science Is Gonna Happen During The Eclipse

The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains

Beyond just promise, CRISPR is delivering in the lab today

The Alda MethodTM

 

Resources

How to Share Your Science Story

Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

Pixar in a Box: The Art of Storytelling

The Hero's Journey - Mythic Structure of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth

 

 

About the Author:

Debbie King has over 20-years' experience writing a wide variety of content and technical publications. She is currently committed to raising public awareness of scientific advances and energizing her readership with regard to climate change. 

Though she loves writing about all things science, the mind-body interaction has always held a special fascination, leading her to earn her B.S. in Biology and Psychology from Mary Washington College in Virginia, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.

A Virginian transplant, Debbie fell in love with the Northwest beauty and culture in the 1990s and is happy to call Seattle her home. In fact, it was personally seeing the diminishing of Nisqually Glacier on Mt. Rainier from the first time she visited in 1995 and visiting again in 2006 that ultimately convinced her that climate change was real and urgent.

 

Go With The Flow

In modern days, when we think of glaciers, we think of alpine glaciers. They're relatively small, and they occur only in the mountains. By definition, a glacier must flow, so a stagnant piece of ice is just ice, not a glacier. In alpine areas, glaciers flow for a couple of reasons, and the slope of the mountain is only part of the reason.

 

Ice is a solid, but under enough stress, it acts "plastic," which means that under enough stress, it can deform, or flow, without fracturing or breaking. If you hit an ice cube with a hammer, it will break into a million tiny pieces, but with the right amount of stress, applied over time rather than suddenly, the ice will deform, instead of shatter. It's similar to silly putty; if you pull silly putty apart quickly, it will snap, but if you pull it slowly, the putty stretches. If you’re unfamiliar with silly putty, check out the first thirty of so seconds of this video to see how it stretches and breaks.

Alpine glaciers flow downhill partially because gravity pulls the material down the slope of the mountain but there is another, more important reason as well. More precipitation falls at the top of the mountain and the top of the mountain is colder. More snow, means more ice, and cold temperatures make the ice stick around so the glacier grows (or “accumulates”) high up in the mountains. The lower part of the glacier gets a lot less precipitation and is warmer, so the lower part of the glacier is where the ice melts and the glacier shrinks (or “ablates”). 

Source: Image created by Kristiana Lapo

Source: Image created by Kristiana Lapo

As the glacier grows high up in the mountains, the top part gets so heavy that it can't hold itself up, and the ice starts to deform and flow under its own weight. The slope of the mountain helps out a bit, but if there is enough ice, the same thing will happen even on flat land, which is exactly what happens to continental ice sheets (also called “continental glaciers”)

 

The Cordilleran ice sheet is the ice sheet that covered western Canada and parts of northern Washington (including Seattle and the Puget Sound) about 20,000 years ago. During this time, the western Canadian coast was so cold and there was so much precipitation that the ice grew and grew until it couldn't hold up its own weight and began to flow. The ice flows from where it was thick to where it was thin. For the Cordilleran Ice sheet, precipitation was greatest on the coast, so the ice sheet flowed away from the coast further inland, and to the south. The Puget Lobe of the ice sheet reached as far south as Olympia and was about 3500 feet thick (or about the height of five Space Needles).

Source: Steven Earle (https://opentextbc.ca/geology/chapter/16-1-glacial-periods-in-earths-history/)

Even when ice sheets or glaciers melted away long ago, you can still see signs that the ice was once there.

The Puget Sound was carved by the Puget Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet:

Source: Washington State University (http://rocky.ess.washington.edu/areas/Puget_Lobe/)

Source: Washington State University (http://rocky.ess.washington.edu/areas/Puget_Lobe/)

The big hills that run north-south through Seattle are glacial features called drumlins:

Source: Figure 8 from [Troost and Booth, 2008]

Source: Figure 8 from [Troost and Booth, 2008]

On a smaller scale, glaciers can carve out rocks, leaving cool features like these, called striations:

Glaciers can also carry huge chucks of rock which are left behind when the glacier melts, called erratics:

In addition to these awesome glacial features, there are still some glaciers in Washington State that you can actually go see! The majority of glaciers globally and in the Pacific Northwest are shrinking but it’s not too late to go see them!

 

In the Olympics Mountains, Blue Glacier can be seen from the vantage point at Hurricane Ridge, but it’s far away, so bring the binoculars! If you’re up for a backpacking trip, the Hoh River Trail (http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/hoh-river-blue-glacier) will afford you a more up-close-and-personal view of Blue Glacier.

Blue Glacier, Mount Olympus Source: Aaron Linville (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Glacier#/media/File:Mount_Olympus_Blue_Glacier_from_Lateral_Moraine_Panorama.jpg)

Blue Glacier, Mount Olympus

Source: Aaron Linville (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Glacier#/media/File:Mount_Olympus_Blue_Glacier_from_Lateral_Moraine_Panorama.jpg)

On Mount Rainier, glacier views are more accessible. The Nisqually Vista Loop (http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/nisqually-vista-loop) is 1.2 miles total and provides a spectacular view of Mount Rainier and Nisqually Glacier. The Emmons Moraine Trial (http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/emmons-glacier-view) off of the Glacier Basin Trail (http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/glacier-basin) is a relatively short trail that will take you to see Emmons Glacier, which is the biggest glacier (by surface area), and my favorite glacier on Rainier. For a slightly longer hike and similarly spectacular views, the Tahoma Creek Suspension Bridge – Emerald Ridge Loop (http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/emerald-ridge) is a tough but rewarding 14-mile round trip hike with views of Tahoma Glacier, but be careful and check trail reports before you go because the trail can be washed out.

Emmons Glacier from the Emmons Moraine Trail, Mount Rainier. Photo Credit: Kristiana Lapo

Emmons Glacier from the Emmons Moraine Trail, Mount Rainier. Photo Credit: Kristiana Lapo

Want to know more about glaciers? Check out my blog feministglaciology.com, where I talk about glacier and climate change, and the intersection of science and social issues.

Materials about Science, Science about Materials

One of the best parts of the March for Science movement for me has been learning about all the different types of scientists and their research. Both the #MyScienceWill and #ActualLivingScientist hashtags have impressed on me just how small my little bubble of science is and how important it is to expand my own scientific awareness. There have been calls for years now for scientists to do more to disseminate their work to the public, but what about scientists sharing more with each other? Why don’t more biologists share their work with astronomers or quantum physicists geek out with ornithologists? Maybe they do and I’m just unaware of it. In either case, this blog article is my small attempt to open up my own bubble and give a little bit of information about my field of study, materials science and engineering. 

 

A Materials Scientist by Any Other Name….

 

Without fail, the first question a materials scientist or engineer will hear is “What’s that?” and each of us will probably say something a little bit different, but here’s my take. Materials science is the study of a material’s structure and properties and how processing can alter those properties. It’s mostly a combination of physics, chemistry, and sometimes biology, in the case of biomaterials like hip implant coatings or 3D-printed organs. You may or may not have heard too much about us, but materials scientists and the fruits of our labors are everywhere. Boeing has long been a mecca for materials engineers with their work in aircraft alloys and now with the mostly composite 787 Dreamliner. The silicon industry employs thousands of materials people to design and build smaller transistors, higher efficiency solar-cell materials, and brighter LEDs. Sporting companies employ us to help make lighter bikes, harder golf clubs, and high-performance fabrics. Even the paint on your walls has been engineered by a materials scientist at some point.

 

The next question after “What’s a materials scientist” is almost inevitably “what’s your favorite material?” The answer I’ve given has evolved over time from steel to Nickel-Titanium (shape-memory alloy) to Cadmium Selenide nanoparticles (rainbow quantum dots) but for the past five years or so, the answer I’ve always given has been ice—plain, run-of-the-mill, solid water.

Rainbow CdSe quantum dots fluorescing under UV light.

Rainbow CdSe quantum dots fluorescing under UV light.

Ice, Baby, Ice

During my PhD, my research focused on using ice to make unique, porous microstructures for a variety of applications using a process called freeze casting. As anyone who’s looked closely at a snowflake knows, they tend to grow much wider than they are thick. That’s why we have snowflakes not snowpucks. This growth behavior is due to ice’s hexagonal crystal structure, which favors growth along the lowest energy crystallographic direction. We can exploit the directional solidification behavior of ice to create a wide range of amazing crystal morphologies, each with its own unique properties.

Phase diagram of ice morphologies as a function of temperature and supersaturation of solvents. Example freeze-cast microstructures on the right. Credit to Deville et al. 2013

Phase diagram of ice morphologies as a function of temperature and supersaturation of solvents. Example freeze-cast microstructures on the right. Credit to Deville et al. 2013

 

To create a freeze-cast, you suspend particles in a water-based suspension and then apply a directional temperature gradient to the suspension. As the ice crystals nucleate and grow, they push the particles in the suspension aside. Think of these growing crystals as thousands of tiny snowplows pushing the particles in the suspension aside. The result is a material that alternates between particle walls and ice crystals. Freeze drying the freeze-cast suspension removes the ice, leaving you with a directionally porous particulate material. The following phase diagram illustrates the steps typically required to freeze cast a material.

 

Process to make freeze-casts. Materials other than ceramics can be used as long as they can be suspended in water.

Process to make freeze-casts. Materials other than ceramics can be used as long as they can be suspended in water.

There are many applications for such a material. Personally, I was experimenting to see if I could develop more efficient and robust solid oxide fuel cell electrodes. The idea being that the large channels could guide gases efficiently into the electrode where they could combust. Freeze-cast materials are also being studied for oil/water separation filters, next-generation bone scaffolds (since their porous channels are perfect for osteoblasts to grab onto), and high-surface-area batteries.

 

Much of materials science boils down to kinetics versus thermodynamics. It’s a question of what does the system want to happen versus what can it actually do. Freeze casting requires balancing those competing forces to get a desirable result. There is only a small window of thermodynamic and kinetic conditions that will allow freeze casting. Lower the temperature too quickly and you’ll end up engulfing all your particles. Freeze too slowly and you’ll push all your particles to the top of the suspension leaving you an unstructured pile of particles. You have to find that sweet spot in the middle and once you do you can make a wide range of different structures, all with different properties simply by changing the freezing rate or adding some additives to the suspension. Isn’t ice amazing!?

(1) Freezing too slowly and pushing particles. (2) Freeze-casting regime. (3) Freezing too quickly and trapping particles.

(1) Freezing too slowly and pushing particles. (2) Freeze-casting regime. (3) Freezing too quickly and trapping particles.

Now, I know there are those of you out there that probably have fantastic ideas for how these types of structures could be used and I’d love to hear them. Again, that’s why we need to talk to each other and learn from one another. A biologist or geologist will look at a material scientist’s work with completely different eyes. Maybe you’ve solved problems that I’ve been struggling with for months. Scientists DO need to do a better job speaking with the public about their work, but science also can benefit from greater levels of interdisciplinary communication. The March for Science has reminded me of just how many different fields there are and how little I know about any of them other than my own. For my part, I’m currently figuring out what scientific periodicals I want to subscribe to, and I’m looking forward to sitting down for a beer with my fellow March for Science organizers and asking how the heck this CRISPR thing, a new way to edit DNA they won’t stop talking about, works.

For more information:

Ice templating, freeze casting: Beyond materials processing: Deville 2013

Freeze-Casting Wiki - Note: Normally I wouldn’t cite Wikipedia, but I actually wrote the article here, which is essentially my dissertation introduction.

Generic Materials Science Information - Again, this is Wikipedia, but this is a nice comprehensive collection of information about materials science.

 

About the Author: This week’s blog post was written by Aaron Lichtner, a member of the March for Science leadership team. Aaron got his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Washington and currently works for Nordstrom as a data scientist doing Image Analysis.

The Most Dangerous Chemical in My Lab... and it's Not What You Think!

The Most Dangerous Chemical in y Lab

It's not what you think! 

I’m March for Science – Seattle’s resident chemist and a certified lab rat. The single most important part of my job is to ensure the health and safety of the students in my upper division chemistry labs. I work closely with undergraduates and I often get asked, “What is the most dangerous chemical that you’ve ever worked with.” After much thought, my answer surprises most people because it’s not what you think! When I think about chemical safety there are three important considerations: acute toxicity, persistence, and reliability.

Eric Camp performing a chemistry demonstration. This specific demosration involves igniting a balloon filled with hydrogen. This produces a small explosion. 

Eric Camp performing a chemistry demonstration. This specific demosration involves igniting a balloon filled with hydrogen. This produces a small explosion. 

 

1.       Acute Toxicity: This is an official OSHA term for the immediate (up to two weeks) health effects resulting from a single exposure. It all boils down to, “If I inhale it, ingest it, touch it, will it hurt me?” In my lab I use a lot of concentrated hydrochloric acid (Conc HCl). This compound definitely meets the criteria of “Acutely Toxic”. One unique characteristic of Conc HCl is that you can simultaneously inhale, ingest, and touch it with a single exposure. Some folks say that Conc HCl smells bad; I disagree. It smells irritating. I make the distinction because when HCl contacts the mucosal lining of the sinuses it reacts with water and turns into an acid. The bad smell is really a chemical burn. Whereas Conc HCl has a high risk of acute toxicity – specifically chemical burns -- it is not a chemical that will persist in the environment for a long duration. It also has a well-documented and reliable chemical behavior. While Conc HCl is a dangerous compound and should be handled with care, in my opinion, it is nowhere close to dangerous enough to top my list.

2.       Persistence:  Our body does a pretty good job removing unwanted agents from our system, thank you, liver!  “Persistent adverse health effects” indicates how long the effects of exposure take. HCl will burn on contact, then it is done. Not persistent. Other compounds, however, can remain in the body or in the environment for prolonged periods. One class of chemicals that would be rated high on this list would be mercury compounds. Dimethylmercury is one of the most dangerous chemicals on earth. In a very famous incident, chemist Karen Wetterhahn spilled a drop of this mercury compound on her gloved hand. She then removed the glove and went on with her day, but the compound had penetrated the glove. Ten months later she died of mercury toxicity. While this compound meets the criteria for acute toxicity and persistence, I have never encountered this particular chemical. I have, however, seen plenty of organo-mercury compounds. Because of stories like this and the risk of environment persistence and the influence of the emerging field of Green Chemistry, mercury compounds are avoided whenever possible.

3.       Reliability: This defines whether a chemical will behave in a way that is easy to predict. When handling chemicals, I like them to be reliable. It all comes down to being able to predict when a reaction will happen and how quickly it will occur. Thermite is a great example of this. When ignited, thermite burns hot and makes an impressive fiery display. However, thermite will sit on a shelf for eternity and will not combust. When I drop a burning magnesium strip into it, providing the needed activation energy, it will burn white-hot for 10 seconds and extinguish itself. I have safety precautions in place but as long as I follow them, I am fine. Ethers, on the other hand, are not reliable. The most famous ether, diethyl ether, was used as an anesthetic during the 19th century. It has two unreliable components. First, it is very flammable. It has a very high vapor pressure, which means it’s very volatile and turns into a gas easily. Click here to watch a video of a combustion reaction using ether. As a chemist, I only handle diethyl ether in a fume hood, which removes the flammable gas. The second concern is that ethers will form peroxides over time. These peroxides crystalize and become a contact explosive. Any old bottle of ether should be considered a live bomb. Simply moving a bottle of ether with peroxides could result in detonation, igniting the ether itself. Any ether older than six months should be considered a hazard. Click here to watch a bomb squad decontaminate an old ether bottle found in a storage locker. 

Using these criteria of acute toxicity, persistence, and reliability, a compound such as dimethylmercury would be at the top of my list, yet I’ve never encountered it. There is one compound that I have encountered and is nearly as toxic, persistent, and very unreliable.  In my graduate studies I studied organometallic chemistry (attaching organic compounds to metals). My protocol required me to make a carbonylate a compound. This involved blowing pure carbon monoxide (100% concentration) into a reaction flask for a prolonged period of time. I remember one specific day at the lab, the clamp holding the rubber tubing connecting the tank of carbon monoxide failed and the tube started flailing and filled the lab with CO. Thankfully I used my safety training. Holding my breath, I turned off the gas and immediately left the area. 

Acute Toxicity: 1 breath of 2% CO will kill you in three minutes. 

Persistence:  low-level chronic exposure (0.0035%) leads to significantly shorter life due to heart and nerve damage

Reliability:  It’s certainly reliably deadly, but more worrisome is that it is a colorless gas with no odor. You simply cannot see it or smell it. In the US alone, 15,000 people visit the emergency room annually due to CO poisoning and of these 500 people die. You cannot rely on a compound you cannot sense.

When I talk with my students about my most feared chemicals they are often surprised, because they are, “old school chemicals”. They are things that everyone knows can hurt or kill you. The simple fact is that these chemicals have a reputation for a very good reason. As the field of chemistry moves forward, we shy away from creating new persistent, acutely toxic, and unpredictable compounds, because we know what the consequences will be.

A robustly funded EPA that publically communicates their data and science helps make us safer as a community. They help identify new potential toxins and carcinogens and regulate their removal from the industrial and agricultural industry. As a result, the majority of the chemicals that you will find under your sink are relatively safe if you use them according to the directions. Our lives are better because of chemistry, we just need to carefully read the instructions and respect the safety protocols.

 

About the Author: This weeks blog was athored by March for Science - Seattle's resident chemist Eric Camp. Eric works for the University of Washington and manages the upper division chemistry labs.

No longer “essential”. What does this mean for the mental and behavioral health of Americans?

shutterstock_96612451.jpg

No longer "essential"

What does this mean for the mental and behavioral health of Americans?

The American Health Care Act (AHCA) may reduce the availability of mental health, substance use, and behavioral health treatment and services. AHCA provisions will allow states and businesses to opt out of providing these services at an affordable cost, leaving many Americans to go without coverage for their mental and behavioral health needs. Mental health-related issues have been found to account for more than 217 million work days lost, as well as cost society $193.2 billion annually in lost earnings alone. Spending money on mental health, substance use, and behavioral health treatment and services is an economically sound strategy, essential for creating a thriving workforce, economy, and society for all Americans.

 

We’ve all read the headlines: the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which is now in the hands of the Senate, is the administration’s vision for healthcare in the United States. While the AHCA has implications across all types of health conditions, we will focus here on one area in particular: mental health. Before we dive into what the AHCA proposes about mental health care, let’s quickly review what our coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) currently grants us.

 

The current state of mental health coverage under the ACA

It’s estimated that 11 million Americans whose incomes are 138% below the federal poverty level (FPL; 2017 FPL $12,060 for individuals) can now receive coverage for mental health and substance use disorders (SUDs). This substantial increase in coverage is due in part to the Medicaid expansions provided by the ACA, which the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) called “one of the largest expansions of mental health and substance use disorder coverage in a generation”. In brief, this expansion re-categorized mental health and SUDs in the Health Insurance Marketplace, moving them to the “Essential Health Benefits” category. Under the ACA, this category requires state coverage on all Qualified Health Plans for those health benefits deemed “essential”. Insurance jargon aside, what does this mean? The quick answer – the Essential Health Benefits category allows millions of Americans access to affordable mental health, SUDs, and behavior health services.

 

Mental health coverage under the AHCA

The AHCA would remove the very federal requirement discussed above; under the AHCA, mental health, SUDs, and behavioral health services would be removed from the list of Essential Health Benefits. What would be the consequences of this removal? In terms of Medicaid and individual market coverage, health plans could completely drop coverage related to these services. For employer-sponsored plans, larger corporations could also decrease benefits in these areas, providing only the minimum required. Under another AHCA provision, Medicaid would be restructured to have per capita caps by state, meaning payments to states would be capped based on the number of people enrolled in their Medicaid programs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that $882 billion will be stripped from the Medicaid program over the next 10 years under the AHCA.

 

Taken together, how will these cuts in coverage impact Americans? Serious mental illness and SUDs are very costly (e.g., estimated $131 billion spending on those with behavioral health diagnosis, close to half of Medicaid spending in 2011). Those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder alone have a per capita spending of greater than $35,000 per year. In Washington state, intensive outpatient evidence-based practices cost an average of $5,679 per client, ranging from $1,238 per client for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy to $15,788 per client for Multisystemic Therapy. Ask yourself, with the proposed changes to mental health, SUDs, and behavioral health services coverage, can the clinical needs of all Americans still be met under the AHCA?

 

What are the consequences of no coverage for mental health?

Now that we have a clear picture of the differences in how mental health and SUDs will be (or not be) covered under the AHCA, we can discuss the societal impact of these changes. Specifically, what is the economic impact of NOT covering these kinds of services? There are various levels used to assess the economic impact of illness. The first we have already discussed: the direct costs, which involve the actual medical expenditures produced by the illness. There are also indirect costs associated with illness, which encompass individual or societal costs incurred due to reduced or lost productivity. Under the AHCA, employers are able to reduce enrollment and/or benefits, which will produce indirect effects on the economy and society at large. Next we will explore what those indirect costs are specific to mental health and SUDs.

 

How will the AHCA change the American workforce?

What comes to mind when you begin to think about the indirect costs of health care? We will focus here on two of the most salient costs: productivity loss (i.e., hours worked) and lost earnings. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), those with alcohol or drug abuse accounted for an estimated $80.9 billion in lost productivity alone. Add workplace accidents and increased health-care and insurance costs to the mix and this number spikes to $276 billion lost. The Center for Prevention and Health Services estimates 217 million work days lost annually due to mental health and SUDs. Furthermore, mental illness and SUDs are the third leading cause of long-term disability in the United States. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Mental Health found that serious mental illness costs society $193.2 billion annually solely in lost earnings. When looking at both productivity and earning losses, the numbers speak for themselves – not investing in mental health has clear indirect costs on the capacity of the American workforce.

 

How can spending now save later?

We know that not investing in mental health and SUDs is costly to our society, but do we know that investing now can save money down the road? The answer to this question is easy: yes. The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council found that for each dollar invested in early treatment and prevention programs, a range of $2 to $10 in savings is observed across health, criminal, juvenile justice, and education costs, as well as productivity. To provide a real-world example, when the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health implemented a jail diversion program they observed an initial cost $400,000 offset by $1.3 million savings in emergency health services and jail costs due to program implementation.

 

In sum, we have explored both the financial and human toll of not investing in mental health, substance use, and behavioral health treatment and services. We have quantified the cost of not caring. Can we as Americans afford to move toward a country where these services are not considered essential?

 

How can you help?

Are you concerned with how the AHCA will impact the healthcare of all Americans? It is crucial that our senators hear our concerns. Please use this tool developed by Families USA to email your Senators and contact them by phone: http://salsa4.salsalabs.com/o/50902/p/dia/action4/common/public/?action_KEY=22118

Volunteer: The WA Science-Based Policy Center is a non-partisan, statewide organization started by the March for Science – Seattle, whose mission includes using a scientific framework to identify areas in need of policy interventions and taking a pragmatic, non-ideological, science-based approach to policy solutions. Other activities will involve increasing the scientific literacy of legislators, creating educational material to help increase literacy of the legislative process among scientists, and helping facilitate interactions between scientists and legislators so that we can achieve evidence-based policies.Click Here to sign-up to join the WA Science-Based Policy Center

 

About the Author: This weeks blog was written by WA Science-Based Policy Center member Caitlin Dorsey. 

Caitlin N. Dorsey is a Midwestern transplant, nearing her first year of living in the PNW. She is a graduate of Indiana University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction in Psychology (with Departmental honors) and Sociology, and a minor in Counseling. Caitlin is an implementation scientist who is passionate about promoting the adoption and integration of evidence-based practices, interventions, and policies. She is a volunteer for the WA Science-Based Policy Center and a member of the Social Issues Policy Group. 

 

References

 

1.      APA Voices Concerns with American Health Care Act: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/03/health-care-act.aspx

2.      Federal Poverty Level (FPL): https://www.healthcare.gov/glossary/federal-poverty-level-FPL/

3.      Affordable Care Act Expands Mental Health And Substance Use Disorder Benefits And Federal Parity Protections For 62 Million Americans: https://aspe.hhs.gov/report/affordable-care-act-expands-mental-health-and-substance-use-disorder-benefits-and-federal-parity-protections-62-million-americans

4.      Implementation of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA): https://www.samhsa.gov/health-financing/implementation-mental-health-parity-addiction-equity-act

5.      House Passes AHCA, Puts Mental Health and Addiction Care in Jeopardy: https://www.thenationalcouncil.org/capitol-connector/2017/05/3216/

6.      Obamacare Repeal Seen As Weakening Mental Health Protections: http://www.politico.com/story/2017/03/obamacare-repeal-mental-health-protections-235825

7.      Research and Evidence-Based Practices for Children and Youth in Washington State: https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/BHSIA/dbh/Mental%20Health/EBT%20Cost%20Study%20report%20FINAL2.0.pdf

8.      Economic Impact: http://www.mentalmenace.com/economicimpact.php

9.      The Impact of Mental Health and Addiction on Economic Well-Being: http://www.fedcap.org/sites/default/files/fedcap_solution_series_-_a_conversation_with_patrick_kennedy.pdf

10.  The Cost of Not Caring: Nowhere to Go: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/12/mental-health-system-crisis/7746535/

11.  The Economic Costs of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in the United States: https://archives.drugabuse.gov/EconomicCosts/Index.html

12.  Is Substance Abuse Costing Your Company?: https://www.summitholdings.com/wc/News/2011/3/31/Is+Substance+Abuse+Costing+Your+Company%3F

13.  May Is Mental Health Awareness Month -- Here's Why Companies Should Care: https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2015/05/20/may-is-mental-health-awareness-month-heres-why-companies-should-care/#37a2e71b27c0

How to Change Minds in the Climate Change Debate

“Climate change is just a hoax...a liberal conspiracy targeting fossil fuel companies.” Scientists are still debating whether climate change is real.” “It's all going to burn in the apocalypse.” If you have ever discussed climate change with those who do not believe that climate change is human-caused, you have probably heard quotes like these.

So why do climate change deniers strongly reject a 97% consensus reached by climate scientists worldwide? They may have even seen the evidence of climate change in the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, rising water levels in the streets of Miami, or the rapid disappearance of glaciers in Glacier National Park and yet, still refuse to believe that humankind is responsible for the rapidity of climate change that threatens our planet.

 

Understanding the Psychology of Denial

The answer lies in their worldview, the lens through which they perceive the events around them. Someone entrenched in a conservative worldview may claim that human-caused climate change is a liberal conspiracy to undermine the fossil fuel industry. People of faith may have adopted the position of the late Jerry Falwell, who declared that climate change was a tool of Satan designed to distract the faithful from spreading the message of Christ.

It would be natural to assume that, when presented with the facts and evidence of climate change, deniers would feel compelled to change their minds. In fact, their reaction is typically quite the opposite—they actually feel more confident in their beliefs—a dynamic that is known as the backfire effect. The science behind this is centered in the amygdala region of the brain, which causes us to respond to both physical and information threats by shoring up defenses.

Say No to “Just the Facts, Ma’am”

So if facts won’t change minds, what will? The answer lies in how we frame our talking points, the nature of our relationship with the denier, and the use of what is called “sticky science.”

Rather than reiterating the threats of climate change, reframe the conversation to focus on the positive benefits of caring for the planet such as reduced health risks, job creation, and energy independence. For example, you could mention that an offshore wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island has shut down a CO2-spewing diesel plant and created 300 jobs. Reframing climate change as ‘creation care’ tends to resonate with evangelical Christians.

Appealing to emotions can be a powerful influencer and is a prime example of sticky science—Florida residents may be more convinced when you point out that rising sea levels may threaten their residence or business. Using metaphors and telling stories bypasses the logical processes of the brain by stimulating the amygdala and sensory cortex of the brain respectively.

Linking climate change to personal health (another appeal to emotion) is likely to resonate with deniers on some level. Heat waves, hurricanes, famine, and flooding all threaten human life; increased flooding also increases the risk of disease carried by mosquitos and standing water. Psychologists report that climate change can lead to pre-traumatic stress and anxiety.

Trust also plays an important factor and is another trait of sticky science—the more credible and trustworthy you are perceived, the greater the chance that you will be able to influence deniers. Discussions with family, friends, and local community groups are more likely to engender a shift in beliefs than an impersonal news article or presentation by strangers. But regardless of who you are addressing, keep in mind that you are more likely to reach the undecided majority than hardcore deniers.

But It’s Cold Outside!

Deniers often cite common myths as a defense against facts regarding human-caused climate change. You may have heard the story of Jim Inhofe tossing a snowball in the U.S. Senate chamber, declaring that the cold, snowy weather outside disproved climate change. While this anecdote may seem darkly humorous, Inhofe’s statements perpetuate a common climate change myth. In reality, as the Arctic grows warmer, the polar jet stream pushes south and east across North America and Europe, leading to intense winter storms.

John Cook, the founder of Skeptical Science, explains how to use “inoculation theory” to debunk common climate change myths.

“In inoculation theory, you expose people to a weak version of the misconception,” Cook explains. “What I mean by this is you introduce the myth, and then identify the fallacy that the myth uses to distort science.”

Cook explains that most myths fall prey to one or more of five logical fallacies summed up as the acronym FLICC: fake experts (magnified minority), logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories. Inhofe’s myth would be example of impossible expectations.

Working Together for Change

As climate change increasingly encroaches on our everyday lives, knowing how to engage and win over deniers is essential. If nothing else works, appeal to the better angels of their nature—in the current environment of national polarization, working together to care for our planet will foster a kinder, more responsible society.

Delve in Deeper

You can learn more about how to effectively communicate with climate change deniers or non-scientists in general through these two excellent online classes:

Making Sense of Climate Change Denial - University of Queensland

Stand Up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussing Science that Matters - University of Michigan


 

References:

http://www.ethicsdaily.com/falwell-says-global-warming-tool-of-satan-cms-8596

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2017/04/explaining_science_won_t_fix_information_illiteracy.html

http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/10/us/montana-glaciers-shrinking/index.html

http://dwwind.com/project/block-island-wind-farm/

http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/05/inquiring-minds-katharine-hayhoe-faith-climate

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170403-miamis-fight-against-sea-level-rise

http://lifehacker.com/5965703/the-science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains

Making Sense of Climate Change Denial - online class, University of Queensland

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive While Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath

 

About the  Author: This weeks blog was written by Seattle Marcher and volunteer, Debbie King.

 

Debbie King is a science content writer with over 15-years' experience writing science, healthcare, and technical publications; she also has a background in web design and development. Debbie loves writing about all things science, but the mind-body interaction (now known as behavioral neuroscience) has always held a special fascination, leading her to earn her B.S. in Biology and Psychology. Debbie is committed to raising public awareness of scientific advances and energizing her readership with regard to climate change. A Virginian transplant, Debbie fell in love with the Northwest beauty and culture on her honeymoon and is happy to call Seattle her home. You can learn more about Debbie at debbierking.com.

Do We Really Care If We Take the, 'Health' Out of, 'Healthcare?'

Last week Congress pushed through a bill to replace and repeal the Affordable Care Act. One of the major concerns with the new bill is that while insurers cannot outright deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, they can dramatically increase the insurance rates including putting folks with pre-existing conditions into high risk pools. A recent report from AARP finds that rates could reach as high as $25,700 per year for folks in high-risk pools. This effectively renders folks qualifying for the high-risk pool unable to attain health insurance. 

 With health care access looming large in the mind of the public, issues of public health, policy, and equity must be evaluated. March for Science – Seattle advocates for robustly funded publically communicated science and evidence based policy. We believe this mission should be applied to all aspects of human governance, including health care.  

Robust funding of medical research has created an abundance of data about health. After reviewing the body of literature, data, and evidence, this is what we have found:

To further illustrate the case, we submit two case studies that exemplify these facts.

 

Case Study 1: Nearly Universal Health Care and Mortality Rates

In 2006 the state of Massachusetts passed health care reform which provided access to health insurance for nearly every single Massachusetts resident. In the year following the measure, the uninsured rate dropped by half. The health insurance reform continued to serve the citizens state until the Affordable Care Act was adopted in 2016. In 2014 a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine investigated the mortality rates before and after the health care reform. The authors found that the health care reform was responsible for a substantial drop in mortality rates in all age groups in comparison to control. While all demographics benefited, the largest benefit was found in counties with high rates of poverty.  

Case Study 2: Cystic Fibrosis Survival Times in America vs. in Canada.

Cystic fibrosis is a life threatening genetic condition. While we have made major advancements in the treatment and care for CF patients, they still experience shorter than average life expectancies. A study published last month compared average survival times between American CF patients and Canadian CF patients. What they found was shocking! Canadian CF patients live, on average, 10 years longer than American CF patients. While Canadian transplant regulations are different than the American system, the authors felt that the Canadian universal health care system was one major contributor to the dramatic difference in life expectancies.

As Americans, we hold these truths to be self-self-evident: that all people are created equal; that we are endowed with certain unalienable rights among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  If we cast aside our tired, poor, and huddled masses aside to a high-risk pool, to a system where they can no longer access health care services, are we really all equal? Are we able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness?

We have evidence that access to health care and preventative care increases the survival rates of all demographics. Our policies should reflect and enact the recommendations coming from the data that our tax-payer dollars have procured. If you are concerned about the fate of America’s health care system, this is what you can do:

  • Contact your senators:  This tool will auto-draft an email to your senators which you can edit and send in only a few minutes.  
  • Sign a petition: This petition focuses on including women and requires public hearings. 
  • Attend a town hall: This website helps you find a town hall near you.
  • Tell your story: This website give people an opportunity to share your experience. 
  • Join the WA Science-Based Policy Center:  Click here for more information about March for Science - Seattle's Policy Outreach Group. 

Now is the time to get enraged and become engaged.  Civic engagement is the highest form of patriotism. Join March for Science – Seattle as we lead the way to an equitable, affordable, evidence based public health system.

 

Weekly blog  posts are authored by a rotating cast of MFSS Organizers, Marchers, Scientists, Science Enthusiasts and Journalists. 

About the Author: Liz Warfield

Liz Warfield is a Mother, Biologist, Educator, and Organizer with March for Science Seattle. Liz is passionate about evidence based science education and advocates for equity in science classrooms. 

100 Days of Resistance: March for Science – Seattle Past, Present, and Future.

April 29th marked the first major evaluation point of Trump’s presidency: the 100 day mark. We’ve realized that March for Science – Seattle (MFSS) is also approaching our 100th day as an organization as well. Today, May 2nd 2017, marks our 99th day. This realization has given us cause for celebration but also reflection. In honor of our upcoming 100 days together, we are making the first ever blog post to celebrate our past accomplishments and outline our future.

Call to Action: Our Facebook group, and subsequently the MFSS movement, was formed on January 24th, just days after the inauguration. As organizers with MFSS, we each signed up for a leadership role and many hours of labor because we felt called to action. We are women, men, parents, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, members of the disabled community, educators, and we are scientists. Trump’s anti-science, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric threatened our culture, our families, and our work. Worse yet, we felt hopeless to make a change. This is why we joined March for Science - Seattle.

March for Science – Seattle: Earth Day March

Our march far exceeded our goals. When we arrived at Cal Anderson Park just before 6:30 am the park was nearly empty. A few people stopped by to ask what we were doing – none of them had heard of March for Science. Just as we were starting to worry that no one would show up, the crowds started to arrive. The music started and shortly after that MFSS Organizers took the stage for “The Star-Spangled Banner”. As we stood on stage, we was awestruck by the amount of people that had joined us in taking a stand. In that moment, we had two life-affirming realizations: 1. We did it! 2. We couldn’t have done it without YOU. Although we had significant obstacles and very little time, with your help, we banded together and did something amazing!

Despite poor weather, southbound I-5 being closed, and a ferry route that was shut down, we gathered an estimated 25,000+ scientists and science enthusiasts. More importantly, our voices were heard!

In the days before the March, the current administration boasted of wide and deep cuts to science, health, and environmental agencies. Specifically, Trump’s initial budget proposed cutting the EPA by 1/3rd, resulting in the potential of one in five employees being laid off. Trump also boasted about major cuts to the NIH, threatening to slash NIH funding by as much as 20%. Yesterday, just days after our march, we received the exciting news that Congress has reached an agreement on a budget. This 2017 budget excludes the proposed crippling funding cuts to prominent science and health agencies. Although the EPA funding avoided a major funding cut, it did suffer from a 1% decrease in funding. NIH receive no budget cuts; instead, they received an additional 2 billion dollars in funding. Other big wins in this budget include: the National Parks, which are fully funded; NASA, which also received a modest funding increase; even the National Endowment for the Arts received an increased budget this year.

This is our proof of concept, our litmus test. We have evidence that our voices are being heard and our actions matter. In reflecting back on the work that MFSS has become, we see ourselves as a science service organization. We have worked to provide the scientific community a platform to share their concerns about funding and climate change. We have also served the science enthusiast community by hosting free events that connect scientists with the public. (Click here to learn about March for Science Outreach Events Leading up to the March). As we look toward our future, we are going to continue to use science to serve our community.

That said, we are at a critical point in our resistance against anti-science rhetoric. Now is the time for sustained action.

March for Science – Seattle will use science to support our community. This is how:

March for Science – Seattle: Will be the parent organization and will host 2 major events each year and will sponsor a series of smaller events. March for Science – Seattle, going forward, will consist of two groups – Education and Policy.

Citizens for Science: March for Science – Seattle’s education outreach, will strive to use science to serve the community while giving marginalized voices in science a platform to share their discipline. We will be hosting outreach events and helping to connect community members with scientists.

Upcoming Citizens for Science Events:

  • Food Science Cooking Class: A food scientist will teach a lesson about food and fermentation and teach the class how to make a fermented dish: kimchi. The event will be hosted in a soup kitchen and all proceeds will go to the hosting soup kitchen.  Details coming shortly.

  • Indigenous Voices on Climate Change: Talk with local tribes about climate science, risks to their reservations and ancestral lands, and solutions to the global climate crisis. Details TBD

The WA Science-Based Policy Center is an organization dedicated to fighting for robustly funded, publicly communicated science and evidence-based policy. The Policy Outreach Group is an organization with the goal of interacting with and educating legislators on:

  • The process of science beyond the simplistic classroom scientific method.
  • How science can inform evidence-based policies that are beneficial to their constituents in areas including, but not limited to: Global Climate Change, Medicine, Energy and the Environment.
  • Why funding STEM research and education now is a smart investment for their constituents’ future.

The WASP Group will also produce educational materials to help increase literacy of the legislative process among scientists and help facilitate interactions between scientists and legislators so that we can achieve evidence-based policies.

Moving forward, our immediate next step is to apply for status as a Non-Profit Organization.  As we define our organization’s structure and roles, we will need people to help us advance our cause. We will be hosting a volunteer picnic in June to update volunteers and discuss the organization. Details will be posted soon.

We are strong because of you. Thank you for being part of this adventure.

Let’s keep up the good work!

-Team Science