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Winter 2012 Vol. 12 Number 2

Table of Contents


The Weight of the Nation

©George Doyle/Stockbyte/ThinkstockTime after time through a series of reports on preventing childhood obesity, the Institute of Medicine has called on media companies to do their part in fixing the nation's weight crisis. By the stories they tell and images they show, media help influence whether Americans pursue healthy eating habits and activities or succumb to overindulgence and couch-potato lifestyles.

Saying that media companies should step up to the plate is easy; it is a lot harder to craft shows and other fare that convey the benefits of healthy lifestyles and the risks associated with overeating and inactivity in a compelling way. In 2012, IOM backed up its recommendations in a partnership with HBO Documentary Films and a broader group of scientific experts and supporters. Working together, they developed The Weight of the Nation, a four-part film series on America's weight crisis, along with a companion book to reinforce the series' messages, and a national campaign to spur action against the obesity epidemic.

The films and campaign debuted nationally in conjunction with the release of IOM's latest report on the obesity crisis, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation. While the films focus on the status, causes, and consequences of the obesity epidemic, IOM's report provides a comprehensive set of recommendations and strategies for accelerated change. The report emphasizes a key message: Curbing obesity requires across-the-board societal changes to make healthy foods and beverages and opportunities for physical activity easy, routine, and appealing aspects of daily life. It is a theme that also runs through the films and companion book.

Since the films' debut in May, they have attracted nearly 7 million viewers. In addition, the campaign website has drawn more than 1 million visitors as of mid-December, generated more than 49,000 commitments to take action, and delivered more than 25,000 film screening kits to community groups and organizations.

Other organizations shared their invaluable resources and expertise with the Weight of the Nation project, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health providing additional scientific expertise and Kaiser Permanente and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation giving their support.

IOM offers a portal to the report, film series, companion book, and other campaign materials at -- Christine Stencel

A New Push to Build Disaster Resilience

Disasters are becoming more destructive, both in the United States and around the globe. In 2011 disasters cost the nation a record-breaking $55 billion, and the economic toll from 2012, while still being tallied, is expected to be even higher given Hurricane Sandy's staggering damages.

To help spur a national conversation about how to build the nation's resilience to disasters, the National Academies held a symposium in November that builds on a report released last summer, Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative, which recommended a shift in approach from one that relies heavily on responding to disasters after they occur to one focused on reducing vulnerabilities beforehand.

Keynote speakers included Richard Reed, deputy assistant to the president for homeland security, and former Coast Guard Commander Admiral Thad Allen, who stressed the need for "strategic intent at the national level" in building the country's resilience to disasters.

Three panel discussions followed, the first exploring what it means to have a culture of resilience. Stephen Flynn of the Kostas Research Institute emphasized that local leaders need to understand the risks their communities face and communicate them honestly to their citizens -- a shift from past approaches, and not a popular or easy thing to do. "The changing conversation is the frank admission -- and it has to come from our leaders -- that says risk is a fact of life, there are no risk-free zones on the planet, and it is our capacity to deal with that that's going to be key to our success as a nation, as a company, as a community."

As part of a second panel exploring the practical aspects of building resilience, Linda Langston, county supervisor for Iowa's Linn County, emphasized the need to build strong community connections before disasters happen. "You have to build the relationships and the trust well prior to the difficult times," she said, noting that she often meets elected officials who haven't participated in a pre-disaster drill; a disaster would leave them meeting other emergency managers for the first time under the worst of circumstances.

During the final panel, four federal officials reflected on what can be learned from Hurricane Sandy. One point made repeatedly was the crucial importance of building social networks and lifelines to take care of vulnerable people during disasters, and the need to organize these lifelines before disasters strike.

An archived webcast of the symposium, the report, and other resources on resilience can be found at A summary of the symposium will be released this spring.
-- Sara Frueh

New Initiative Highlights Contributions of Behavioral and Social Sciences

©Sally Elford/Ikon Images/Corbis

In September the National Research Council's Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education kicked off a new initiative, Social and Behavioral Sciences in Action, to draw attention to the value of these disciplines and their contributions to policy and society.

The symposium's keynote address, given by former National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell, illustrated the key role the social and behavioral sciences can play in life-saving health research. Colwell described a three-year study in which she and a team of other researchers evaluated a new way to combat cholera in Bangladesh: teaching women to use sari cloth to filter contaminants out of drinking water. Colwell and her colleagues found that the group that used the sari filters decreased their rate of cholera by 50 percent.

During the study, sociologists guided the team's introduction into the local culture and community and helped design the study's questionnaire to elicit the information needed. What would have happened had they not been on the team? "I wouldn't have had the entre to the villages on such a grand scale -- 150,000 individuals in 50 villages," Colwell said. "And it would've been tragic, because this is an opportunity to take very advanced technology -- science, engineering -- and be able to take those findings in a very practical way to help people."

In another presentation, Lucian Leape of Harvard University highlighted the need for social scientists to tackle an intractable problem -- medical errors, in which the hierarchical, siloed culture of medicine plays a large role. "Changing that culture has got to be the ultimate social science challenge," Leape said. Psychologist Robert Fein explained how his research illuminated the pre-attack behavior of assassins and school shooters, informing the way the Secret Service and others assess threats. And John Lee of the University of Wisconsin discussed the problem of distracted driving and how the social sciences can influence engineering to help "make the human-technology marriage work."

During a final panel discussion, NAS President Ralph Cicerone, NAE President Charles Vest, and IOM President Harvey Fineberg commented on the role of the behavioral and social sciences in meeting societal challenges. "The imperative of modern society demands more attention to the behavioral and social sciences," Cicerone said. "The ambition is there, the methods are getting better, the successes are there, but not many people are hearing about them." To make sure more people do, the initiative plans to continue its outreach through briefings to legislators, additional symposia, and other avenues. An archived webcast of the symposium and additional information on the initiative can be found at -- Sara Frueh

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Copyright 2012 by the National Academy of Sciences