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Climate Change Institute

Matthew Nisbet

Adjunct Associate Professor

Matthew Nisbet

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Washington, DC  20016


Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication and Affiliate Associate Professor of Global Environmental Politics and Environmental Science 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 on 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 and as a member of the Research Council advising Momentus, a non-partisan campaign to inspire Americans to work together on solutions to climate change.

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 1100 times (H-Index = 20), and according to Google Scholar more than 3000 times (H-Index=25).

Nisbet’s scholarship has appeared at high-impact disciplinary journals such as Public Opinion QuarterlyPublic Understanding of Science, and Communication Research as well as interdisciplinary outlets such as ScienceEnvironmentClimatic ChangeNature BiotechnologyBMC Public HealthBMC 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 regular contributor of analysis and commentary to a variety of news outlets including The New Scientist, the Columbia Journalism Review, The Scientist, and Ensia magazines.

Research interests

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, scientific advances and emerging technologies; to invest in media productions and journalistic initiatives that sponsor informed discussion and debate; and to build consensus in support of effective policies and practices.  In conducting and applying this research, 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 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 stakeholders.

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 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 biomedicine including stem cell research and 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 2011 study funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, I analyzed the funding sources, political strategies, and communication efforts of environmental groups in the effort to pass cap and trade legislation.  In current projects, I am studying the organizing and framing strategies of the fossil fuel divestment movement led by and affiliated student groups as well as the ongoing debate over the Keystone XL pipeline.

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.

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. 


In Press

  • Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Framing, the Media and Risk Communication in an Era of Post-Normal Science. In H. Cho, T. Reimer, and & K. McComas (eds), Sage Handbook of Risk Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Besley, J., Oh, S.W., & Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Predicting Scientists’ Participation in Public Life. Public Understanding of Science.
  • Weathers, M., Maibach, E.W., & Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Conveying the Human Implications of Climate Change: Using Audience Research to Inform the Work of Public Health Professionals. In D.Y Kim, G. Kreps, & Singhal, A. (Eds.) Global Health Communication Strategies in the 21st Century. New York: Peter Lang.

Additional Publications

  • Nisbet, M.C. & Fahy, D. (2013). Bioethics in Popular Science: Evaluating the Impact of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. BMC Medical Ethics, 14: 10.

    For more information: Read abstract or Download file (PDF)

  • Nisbet, M.C. (2013). Foreward. In M. Hulme, Exploring Climate Change through Science and in Society: An Anthology of Mike Hulme’s Essays, Interviews Speeches. London: Routledge Earth Scan.

    For more information: Read abstract

  • Nisbet, M.C. (2013). Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual, and Activist. Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Discussion Paper Series, D-78 March. Cambridge, MA: Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
  • Besley, J. & Nisbet, M.C. (2013). How Scientists View the Media, the Public, and the Political Process. Public Understanding of Science, 22: 644-659.

    For more information: Read abstract

  • Nisbet, M.C., Markowitz, E.M., & Kotcher, J. (2012). Winning the Conversation: Framing and Moral Messaging in Environmental Campaigns. In L. Ahern & D. Bortree, (Eds.). Talking green: Exploring current issues in environmental communication. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Myers, T., Nisbet, M.C., Maibach, E.W., & Leiserowitz, A. (2012). A Public Health Frame Arouses Hopeful Emotions about Climate Change. Climatic Change, 1105-1121.
  • Scheufele, D.A. & Nisbet, M.C. (2012). Online News and the Demise of Political Disagreement. In Salmon, C. (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 36. New York: Routledge.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2011). Public Opinion and Political Participation. In D. Schlosberg, J. Dryzek, & R. Norgaard (Eds.).Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. London, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Nisbet, M.C., Maibach, E. & Leiserowitz, A. (2011). Framing Peak Petroleum as a Public Health Problem: Audience Research and Participatory Engagement. American Journal of Public Health, 101: 1620-1626.
  • Maibach, E.W., Nisbet, M.C., & Weather, M. (2011). Conveying the Human Health Implications of Climate Change: A Climate Change Communication Primer for Public Health Professionals. Washington, DC: George Mason University, Center for Climate Change Communication.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Feldman, L. (2011). The Social Psychology of Political Communication. In D. Hook, B. Franks and M. Bauer (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Communication. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2011). Reconsidering the Function and Image of Science in Film and Television. In S. Caulfield, C. Gillespie, & T. Caulfield (Eds.), Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society, and Art. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
  • Fahy, D. & Nisbet, M.C. (2011). The Science Journalist Online: Shifting Roles and Emerging Practices. Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism, 12: 778-793.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Dudo, A. (2011, January). Science, Entertainment, and Education: Annotated Bibliography and Literature Review. Commissioned report in support of the National Academies Science & Entertainment Exchange.
  • Zarzeczny, A., Rachul, C., Nisbet, M.C., & Caulfield, T. (2010). Stem Cell Clinics in the News. Nature Biotechnology, 28, 12, 1243-46.
  • Nisbet, M.C., Hixon, M., Moore, K.D., & Nelson, M. (2010). The Four Cultures: New Synergies for Engaging Society on Climate change. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8, 329-331.
  • Groffman, P. Stylinski, C., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2010). Restarting the Conversation: Challenges at the Interface of Science and Society. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8, 284-291.
  • Maibach, E., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2010). Reframing Climate Change as a Public Health Issue: An Exploratory Study of Public Reactions. BMC Public Health 10: 299.
  • Feldman, L., Nisbet, M.C., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2010, March). The Climate Change Generation? Survey Analysis of the Perceptions and Beliefs of Young Americans. Joint Report of American University’s School of Communication, The Yale Project on Climate Change, and George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.
  • Bubela, T., Nisbet, M.C. et al. (2009). Science Communication Re-Considered. Nature Biotechnology, 27, 514-518.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment, 51 (2), 514-518.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Kotcher, J. (2009). A Two Step Flow of Influence? Opinion-Leader Campaigns on Climate Change. Science Communication, 30, 328-358.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2009). What’s Next for Science Communication? Promising Directions and Lingering Distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10), 1767–1778.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Knowledge into Action: Framing the Debates Over Climate Change and Poverty. In P. D’Angelo and J. Kuypers, Doing News Framing Analysis: Empirical, Theoretical, and Normative Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Framing Science: A New Paradigm in Public Engagement. In L. Kahlor and P. Stout (Eds.), Communicating Science: New Agendas in Communication (pp 40-67). New York: Routledge.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2009). The Ethics of Framing Science. In B. Nerlich, B. Larson, & R. Elliott (Eds.). Communicating Biological Sciences: Ethical and Metaphorical Dimensions (pp 51-74). London: Ashgate.
  • Roser-Renouf, C. & Nisbet, M.C. (2008). The Measure of Key Behavioral Science Constructs in Climate Change Research. International Journal of Sustainability Communication, 3, 37-95.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2008). Communicating Climate Change: Real People, Urban Places. In R. Plunz & M.P. Sutto (Eds.), Urban Climate Change Crossroads (pp 93-110). New York: Urban Design Lab, Columbia University.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Myers, T. (2007). Twenty-Years of Public Opinion about Global Warming. Public Opinion Quarterly, 71, 3, 444-470.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Huge, M. (2007). Where Do Science Policy Debates Come From? In D. Brossard, J. Shanahan, & C. Nesbitt (Eds.) The Public, the Media, and Agricultural Biotechnology (pp 193-230). New York: CABI/Oxford University Press.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Goidel, R.K. (2007). Understanding Citizen Perceptions of Science Controversy: Bridging the Ethnographic-Survey Research Divide. Public Understanding of Science, 16, 4, 421-440.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Mooney, C. (2007). Policy Forum: Framing Science. Science, 316, 5821, 56.
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Huge, M. (2006). Attention Cycles and Frames in the Plant Biotechnology Debate: Managing Power and Participation Through the Press/Policy Connection. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11, 2, 3-40.
  • Goidel, K. & Nisbet, M.C. (2006). Exploring the Roots of Public Participation in the Controversy over Stem Cell Research and Cloning. Political Behavior, 28 (2), 175-192.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2005). The Competition for Worldviews: Values, Information, and Public Support for Stem Cell Research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 17, 1, 90-112.
  • Nisbet, M.C. (2004). The Polls: Public Opinion about Stem Cell Research and Human Cloning. Public Opinion Quarterly, 68 (1), 132-155.
  • Nisbet M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2004). Political Talk as a Catalyst for Online Citizenship. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 81, 4, 877-896.
  • Nisbet, M.C., Brossard, D., & Kroepsch, A. (2003). Framing Science: The Stem Cell Controversy in an Age of Press/Politics. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics,8 (2), 36-70.
  • Nisbet, M.C., Scheufele, D.A., Shanahan, J.E., Moy, P., Brossard, D., & Lewenstein, B.V. (2002). Knowledge, Reservations, or Promise? A Media Effects Model for Public Perceptions of Science and Technology. Communication Research, 29 (5), 584-608.
  • Scheufele, D.A. & Nisbet, M.C. (2002). Being a Citizen On-line: New Opportunities and Dead Ends. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 7 (3), 53-73.


  • 2009 to 2012 — $334,978.00 — Engaging the Public On Climate Stabilization & Adaptation Policies from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
  • 2010 to 2011 — $100,000.00 — What’s Next After Cap and Trade? Evaluating Resources, Strategies, and Best Practices in Climate Change Communication from Nathan Cummings Foundation
  • 2012 to 2012 — $22,885.00 — Comparative Analysis of Advocacy and Social Media Campaigns to Inform Climate Change Communication from MacArthur Foundation by way of sub-contract from ecoAmerica


Ph.D. Cornell University 2003

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