Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication and co-Director of the Center for Social Media at American University, Washington, D.C. As a social scientist, Nisbet studies the role of media and communication in policy-making and public affairs, focusing on debates over science, the environment, and public health. Since 2002, he has authored more than 70 peer-reviewed studies, scholarly book chapters, and monographs. He holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Communication from Cornell University and an AB in Government from Dartmouth College. He served previously on the faculty at The Ohio State University and he has also taught at Dresden Technical University (Germany).
Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow in Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Google Science Communication Fellow, and an Osher Fellow at The Exploratorium science center. He currently serves as a member of the National Academies Roundtable Committee on Public Interfaces in the Life Sciences.
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 ISI Web of Science, Nisbet’s research has been cited in the peer-reviewed literature more than 960 times, and according to Google Scholar more than 2600 times.
Nisbet’s scholarship has appeared at high-impact disciplinary journals such as Public Opinion Quarterly, Public Understanding of Science, and Communication Research as well as interdisciplinary outlets such as Science, Environment, Climatic Change, Nature Biotechnology, BMC Public Health, BMC Medical Ethics and the American Journal of Public Health. A frequently invited speaker, he has given lectures on more than three dozen college campuses worldwide and at many other scholarly and professional venues. His consulting experience includes research and 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.
Nisbet is a frequent contributor of analysis and commentary to a variety of news outlets. He also writes the The Public Square blog at The Breakthrough Institute, and is a columnist at Ensia, a web magazine focused on environmental science and solutions published by the Institute for the Environment at the University of Minnesota.
Over the past decade, my goal has been to develop research and strategies that enhance the ability of experts, stakeholders and organizations to effectively communicate about environmental problems and emerging technologies, to facilitate public participation and to build consensus in support of collective decisions. In this work, I have collaborated with government agencies, science organizations and a diversity of professionals including journalists, scientists, policy staffers, and advocates.
A substantial portion of my research has focused on the communication processes that shape risk perceptions, political preferences and decisions. Employing a variety of methods — including surveys, experiments, and in depth interviews –- I have examined how various frames of reference and policy discourses not only influence the perceptions of the public, but also the judgments of experts, journalists, and stakeholders.
For example, with several colleagues, I have evaluated how the public understands the health risks of climate change and the related risks posed by energy scarcity. 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. In other research, I have also investigated how the public forms judgments and makes decisions about food biotechnology and emerging areas of biomedicineincluding stem cell research and personalized genomics.
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 and their organizations. On this topic, in two recent co-authored studies, I examined how members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the UK Royal Society view the public and the media and how these views influence their communication-related activities. In a report released in 2011, I similarly analyzed the financial resources and political strategies of the major environmental groups and fundersworking on climate change.
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 and other science-related policy debates. Using content analysis and in depth interviews, I have analyzed the factors that shape patterns of news attention, how journalists frame or define these issues, and the extent to which journalists may engage in false balance. I have also examined how advocacy groups mobilize around entertainment media portrayals and documentary films and how these media presentations shape public perceptions. Currently, I am developing several projects that analyze the discussion of science- and environment-related issues at online news sites, blogs and on Twitter; and the influence of these discussions on individual judgments and decisions.
In Fall 2012, while on sabbatical as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, I began a book project that investigates the role of journalists as public intellectuals in complex science-related debates. This initial research resulted in a paper examining the career of journalist-turned-activist Bill McKibben and his impact on the debate over climate change. Scheduled for completion in 2014, other chapters in the book will examine journalists writing about globalization and economic growth (e.g. Tom Friedman), the food system and diet (e.g. Michael Pollan; Gary Taubes), the social implications of the Internet (e.g. Nicholas Carr), the science behind personal decisions and social behavior (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Dubner) and other complex science-related subjects. The book is co-authored with my American University colleague Declan Fahy. In a recent video interview I discuss the book project.