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 a Senior Editor at Oxford University Press’ Research Encyclopedia Climate Science and “The Age of Us” columnist at The Conversation. 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 in Environmental and Risk Communication and Health 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 and the International Journal of Press/Politics; and 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 1400 times (H-Index = 21), and according to Google Scholar more than 4200 times (H-Index = 29). 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.
A substantial portion of my research has focused on the communication processes surrounding science-related controversies that shape risk perceptions, political preferences, and decisions. Employing a variety of quantitative and qualitative 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 advocates. For example, with several colleagues, in 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.
In other research, I have investigated how the public forms judgments and makes decisions about food biotechnology and emerging areas of biomedicine including stem cell research and genomics. In these studies, we have examined public perceptions of the promise of science and technology, reservations about the moral implications of research, and the tendency of the general public to strongly defer to expert authority in forming opinions. We find that deeper beliefs about science and society are stronger influences on opinion than either ideology or political partisanship, suggesting that we need to look beyond left/right differences in order to effectively engage the public on the social implications of science and technology.
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.
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, and how journalists frame or define these issues.
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. In Fall 2012, while on sabbatical as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, I began a series of studies and related book project that investigates the role of public intellectuals in complex science-, technology- and environment-related debates. The book is co-authored with American University’s Declan Fahy.