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SOC Scholar Joins Google Science Fellows

By Charles Spencer

Matthew Nisbet, professor of communication

Google “Matthew Nisbet” and your screen fills with entries on the prolific School of Communication associate professor’s science blogs and video talks.

Add Google itself to those credits.

On Valentine’s Day he learned he had been named one of 21 Google science communication fellows. The Google fellows, who will focus on communicating the science of climate change, come from institutions such as Stanford, the University of California – Berkeley, the University of British Columbia, and American University.

In June, the fellows will gather at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters for a workshop combining hands-on technology training and brainstorming. They can then apply for a grant, and some will get a chance to travel to the Arctic, Antarctica, or the Galapagos.

“These fellows were elected from a pool of applicants of early to mid-career PhD scientists nominated by leaders in climate change research and science-based institutions across the U.S.,” Google announced. “Ultimately, we chose scientists who had the strongest potential to become excellent communicators. That meant previous training in science communications; research in topics related to understanding or managing climate change; and experience experimenting with innovative approaches or technology tools for science communication.”

For a scholar of science communication and its effect on public opinion and policy, Google offers a treasure trove of data and research tools.

“I’m interested in the variety of data sources and analytical tools Google has—they’re part of a new field where, instead of surveying people and asking what they’re doing, you have measures of actual behavior, particularly in terms of measures of information seeking,” Nisbet says.

How many people are searching for terms like “global warming”? What trends are revealed by searches for terms such as “Al Gore” and “global warming hoax”? Combined with data on the actual number of searches, the information can be viewed against contextual factors, “everything from the unemployment rate in a state or county to . . . the climate-gate scandal, or perceived scandal, an election, or the State of the Union speech,” Nisbet notes.

With those tools a researcher can analyze media coverage with a different lens.

“You can have a better aggregate sense of how society is responding in real time and in some cases perceiving an issue like climate change,” Nisbet says.
Climate change communication is a hot topic in the School of Communication, Nisbet notes, and he is working with colleagues on a project to explore the issue.

Why was Nisbet selected as one of Google’s elite group of fellows? Since 2007 he’s examined public opinion and climate change, looking at the influence of the media and how groups can effectively communicate about the issue. He has published articles in peer-reviewed journals, blogged, written popular press articles, and given talks. In the process, he has developed precisely the sort of interdisciplinary relationships that Google values.

In his work, Nisbet has uncovered an unintended consequence of much climate change science communication—it has reinforced rather than overcome divisions.

Summing up the problem neatly in an NPR interview, Nisbet notes that 75 percent of college-educated Democrats accept that human activities are contributing to climate change, whereas only a quarter of college-educated Republicans agree.

“So, what’s going on here?” he asked. “It’s because several Democratic leaders, like Al Gore, and some scientists are adopting what I call the catastrophe frame or the Pandora’s Box frame, focusing on climate impacts that might be frightening, such as the possibility of more intense hurricanes.

“When you move in that direction, when the science is still uncertain, you open yourself up to the counter argument that this is simply alarmism. It’s very easy for the public, then, to rely on their partisanship to make up their minds, and you have this two Americas of public perception.”

Another split Nisbet has noted is how research and advocacy have branched into two networks. The first, which he calls the traditional green network, counts among its members environmental organizations, politically active scientists, and progressive organizations. This group is motivated by climate change and is tied to cap and trade.

The second group, the innovation network, has both left- and right-leaning organizations, energy scientists, and technology entrepreneurs whose “animating motivation is energy security.”

With cap and trade stalled, Nisbet says, President Obama is now in the innovation network group. Obama’s State of the Union speech, he notes, contained no mention of climate change.

Given the substantial challenges that policy makers and science communicators face, Google offers some unique opportunities during a period of major change in climate and energy policies.

“One of the strategies for taking advantage of that opportunity for progress is to break people out of their silos,” he says. How can blogging, social media, and the new communication tools Google is pioneering “facilitate constructive dialogue and debate rather than polarization?”

Finally, Nisbet wants to explore ways of communicating information on climate change within communities that will foster debate. Since online video could be a key tool in that effort, Google—which owns YouTube—could be a key player on that level.

And what if Nisbet is one of the lucky Google fellows who get to travel to the Arctic, Antarctica, or the Galapagos Islands for his project? Which destination would he choose?

“Growing up, part of the story of the world was the Galapagos and Charles Darwin,” he says. “My grandmother and grandfather have gone [there], and so has my uncle, and so it’s a bit of a family pilgrimage.”