Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Affiliate Associate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. He is Editor of the journal Environmental Communication; Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication, and a consulting science communication researcher to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has served previously on the faculty at American University and The Ohio State University.
Nisbet studies the role of communication, media, and public opinion in debates over science, technology, and the environment. The author of more than 70 peer-reviewed studies, scholarly book chapters, and reports, at Northeastern University he teaches courses on Environmental Issues, Communication, and the Media; Science, Communication, and Society, Health Communication, and Strategic Communication. Nisbet holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Communication from Cornell University and a BA in Government from Dartmouth College.
Among awards and recognition, he has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Google Science Communication Fellow, and is currently a member of the National Academies Roundtable Committee on Public Interfaces in the Life Sciences. He serves on the editorial boards for Public Understanding of Science, The Oxford Research Encyclopedia Climate Science, and the International Journal of Press/Politics, and is a past member of the editorial board at Science Communication. He is an affiliated researcher with the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine and the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.
In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet’s research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism.” According to Reuters Web of Knowledge, Nisbet’s research has been cited in the peer-reviewed literature more than 1750 times (H-Index = 22), and according to Google Scholar more than 5300 times (H-Index = 33). In terms of scholarly impact, these metrics rank him among the top 1 percent of communication researchers worldwide.
Nisbet’s research has been funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and Nathan Cummings Foundation. His consulting experience includes analysis on behalf of the National Academies, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Centers for Disease Control, and other public and private sector clients. A frequently invited speaker, he has given lectures on more than four dozen university and college campuses worldwide and at many other scholarly and professional meetings.
As a social scientist, I study the communication and media processes that shape debates over science, technology, and the environment. I have examined how various frames of reference , policy discourses, and media portrayals not only influence the perceptions of the public, but also the judgments of experts, journalists, philanthropists, and advocates.
My goal has been to develop new knowledge, methods, and strategies that enhance the ability of scientists, media professionals, and advocates to effectively communicate about complex policy problems, and to overcome polarized differences.
Over the past decade, my research and related activities have helped drive broader interest in what has come to be called the “science of science communication.” Drawing on insights from communication, psychology, political science, and other fields, the goal of this movement is to better understand how the public and policymakers perceive and use scientific expertise, and to use this knowledge to inform efforts at more effective communication and decision-making. In this regard, several related areas have distinguished my research agenda.
In a first line of research, I have investigated how the public perceives scientists and scientific organizations, and how they form opinions about food biotechnology and emerging areas of biomedicine including stem cell research and genomics. In several studies, I have examined the role of the news media, documentary films, and entertainment portrayals in shaping different forms of knowledge, and in cultivating beliefs about science and technology.
I have also investigated how deeper world views about the relationship between science and society tend to be stronger influences on attitudes about specific policy debates than either religion, ideology, or partisanship. Our findings suggest that we need to look beyond left/right differences in order to effectively engage the public on the social implications of science and technology.
In related research funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I have evaluated how the public understands the health risks of climate change and the related risks posed by volatility in energy prices. In each case, we have tested different communication approaches for building support for actions that protect and benefit public health and that make people and places more resilient.
Our aim has been to inform the efforts of scientists, environmentalists, journalists, and public health experts as they communicate about the risks posed by climate change and fossil fuel dependency. With these professional communities, our research has informed the development of educational materials, workshops, and strategic planning initiatives.
Effective societal engagement, however, is a two-way challenge; requiring research that focuses not only on the public but that also examines the communication assumptions and practices of experts, advocates and their organizations. On this topic, in a series of studies, I have examined how members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the UK Royal Society view the public, the media, and politics and the impact of these views on their communication-related activities.
I have also analyzed the different roles that scientific organizations, universities, and other expert institutions can play in communicating with the public, advising policymakers, and advocating for action, including the potential advantages, risks, and trade-offs. In current work with AAAS, I am conducting related research that informs the organization’s training of scientists and experts as communicators and policy advisors in major policy debates.
Serving as a central intermediary between experts, advocates and the public are journalists and their media organizations. In this area, I have conducted a number of studies evaluating coverage of climate change, food biotechnology, biomedical research,the teaching of evolution, and other science-related policy debates. Using content analysis and in depth interviews, I have analyzed the factors that shape patterns of news attention, and and how journalists across beats frame or define these issues. I have similarly investigated the changing practices of science and environmental journalists in an era of online news, blogs and Twitter, conducting in depth interviews with leading practitioners in the field.
Drawing on this research, I have additionally examined the professional roles that journalists can play in politicized science debates, emphasizing the implications for media innovation and journalism education. This work is informed by my past experience as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; my policy-relevant work in Washington, DC over the past decade; and the relationships I have built with journalists covering the science, environment, and technology beats.
More recently, drawing on work together, I recently began a co-authored book project with Dublin City University’s Declan Fahy that investigates the role of journalists as public intellectuals in shaping debate over major scientific, economic, and social issues. Our research on public intellectuals advances understanding of the history, sociology, and impact of popular books, long form journalism, criticism, and column writing; evaluating the power of ideas and narratives to influence public understanding,inspire social movements, and alter political decisions. Through the lens of our subjects, we also provide fresh insight into the transcendent mega-problems and complex policy debates that define our age.
This past summer, building on this research agenda, I joined Oxford University Press as the founding Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication. The innovative project will publish more than two hundred peer-refereed articles reviewing the intellectual history of research and activities specific to climate change communication, advocacy, journalistic decision-making, media and cultural portrayals, and their relationship to societal outcomes, policy decisions, media effects, and public opinion. Each article will be originally published freely available online as part of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia: Climate Science before also appearing as part of a series of three printed edited volumes. Global in scope and reach, articles are intended to serve as the authoritative, highly cited reference on their topic.