Special Journal Issue Examines Science Communication in Environmental Controversies
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. 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, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. 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."
One paper in the special issue proposes strategies for catalyzing greater collaboration on climate change communication among the "four cultures."
The August issue of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment features open-access articles that review research, define challenges, and propose new initiatives in the area of science communication with a focus on environmental controversies. Over the past several years, there has been increasing attention to communication and public engagement at flagship science journals. The special issue of Frontiers represents the most comprehensive discussion and examination to date.The special issue opens with an editorial by Dot Earth's Andrew Revkin (see his post) followed by 6 review articles that address over-arching issues in science communication and public engagement; the role of universities; the role of Federal agencies; the role of individual scientists; the role of advocates; and the role of interface organizations such as cooperative extension offices.
The special issue is the outcome of a 2009 conference hosted by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and organized by Cary scientist Peter Groffman. (In a podcast interview, Groffman reflects on the conference and contributions from attendees.)I was one of several co-authors who had the opportunity to team with Groffman on the "over-arching issues" paper. Titled "Restarting the Conversation: Challenges at the interface between ecology and society," the paper reviews research on how the public and decision-makers learn, form opinions, and reach judgments about complex environmental problems such as climate change. In a table that I put together, the differences between how scientists and communication researchers tend to view these processes are summarized, with assumptions grouped by the "Deficit model" versus the "Public Engagement model." There has been increasing attention (and some confusion) about the differences between these outlooks and my hope is that the table provides a useful heuristic for further discussion.
The paper concludes with specific types of initiatives that research suggests are likely to be effective at increasing public understanding and participation.In a separate commentary that I co-authored with Mark Hixon (Oregon State), Kathleen Dean Moore (Oregon State), and Michael Nelson (Michigan State), we raise attention to the need for multidisciplinary partnerships in the area of climate change communication. The essay is based on the insights, revelations, and conclusions from the 16 member Columbia River Quorum, which was composed of scientists, scholars, and professionals - four representatives from each of what we describe as the four academic "cultures" - who met in Oregon in 2009 for the first of what we hope will be many similar summits across the world. The goal of that meeting was to identify and build synergies by which members of traditionally separate disciplinary cultures -- specifically the environmental sciences, philosophy and religion, the social sciences, and the creative arts and professions -- can accomplish collaboratively what none are capable of doing alone (see Figure above).
In the essay, we propose specific strategies for catalyzing these inter-disciplinary partnerships with the goal of creating a new communication infrastructure around the issue of climate change. These strategies include a bold proposal to pool "public impact" money from individual research grants at the university level to be re-invested by a "four culture" expert committee in local and regional public engagement initiatives. It also includes a call for a digital news community--a Chronicle of Higher Ed focused on climate change education and communication--that would serve as a catalyst for identifying and diffusing best practices and partnerships.
I am going to have much more to say about the special issue of Frontiers and the need for Four Culture partnerships later this month as a new major blog initiative focused on public engagement launches. Posts and content at the blog will also feature the thoughts, reflections, and ideas of various co-authors and contributors to the special issue of Frontiers along with spotlights on specific examples of public engagement in action. Check back here on August 16.
Nisbet, M., Hixon, M., Moore, K., & Nelson, M. (2010). Four cultures: new synergies for engaging society on climate change Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 8 (6), 329-331 DOI: 10.1890/1540-9295-8.6.329
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