Funding the News: Summary of Shorenstein Center study on foundations and nonprofit media

June 18, 2018–In a new Shorenstein Center study conducted with colleagues at Northeastern University, we assess major patterns in foundation support for nonprofit journalism and media in the half decade leading up to the 2016 election, focusing specifically on support for digital news nonprofits.

Launched over the past fifteen years, digital news nonprofits at the national and state/local level such as ProPublica and Texas Tribune, along with their public media peers, have aimed to fill gaps in coverage created by the dramatic decline of the newspaper industry. Most news nonprofits rely heavily on foundation funding as a primary or major source of revenue. Assessing foundation investments is therefore crucial, since they remain the financial backbone of nonprofit news, playing a behind-the-scenes role in guiding the direction of the field, including the types of subjects covered, organizations supported, and regions prioritized.

We assessed 32,422 relevant grants totaling $1.8 billion distributed by 6,568 foundations supporting journalism and media-related activities between 2010 and 2015. About a third of this funding or $570 million was dedicated to journalism higher education, the Newseum, journalism fellowships, and journalism research, legal support, and technology development. An additional 44% or $795 million supported public media and 5% or about $81 million backed nonprofit magazines.

In comparison, 20% or about $331 million directly supported national, local/state, and university-based digital news nonprofits. In evaluating direct support for digital news nonprofits, we conclude that many innovative projects and experiments have happened and continue to take place, but that grantmaking remains far below what is needed, even in an era of increased journalism giving following the 2016 elections. Our analysis identifies sharp geographic disparities in foundation funding, a heavy concentration of resources in a few dozen successful digital news nonprofits and on behalf of coverage of a few issues. At the national level, there was also the granting of money to a disproportionate number of ideologically-oriented outlets.

Although there are some success stories, neither the digital news nonprofit sector, nor any other form of commercial media have yet been able to meaningfully fill the gaps in coverage created by the collapse of the newspaper industry. A major challenge is that despite more than 6,500 foundations supporting journalism- and media-related activities during the first half of this decade, just a few dozen foundations have provided the bulk of direct support for news gathering. At the state and local level in particular, digital nonprofit media funding depends heavily on the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a few other philanthropies. Several trends since 2016, however, offer reason for optimism, including the launch of the NewRevenue Hub and NewsMatch, along with the considerable “Trump bump” in revenue at ProPublica, which has used the funds to expand its operations at the state and local level.

Key Findings

Several funding categories assessed in the Shorenstein study were not directly related to news nonprofits but represented activities or initiatives intended to enhance the field of journalism generally and its public understanding. These other categories of grants reflect the tough choices that funders face, as prioritizing one of these areas, even if to improve the practice and reach of journalism in society, may take away from direct support for nonprofit news production. Specific to these other activities:

  • Journalism and communication programs at universities along with the Newseum received $369 million or 21% of the $1.8 billion in relevant funding distributed over the six-year period.
  • Journalist professional development received an estimated $122 million or approximately 7% of the $1.8 billion in funding analyzed. These grants supported journalist associations, awards, training workshops, and fellowships.
  • Journalism-related research, technology development, legal support, and philanthropic coordination received approximately $79 million or 4% of all funding during the six-year period analyzed.

Relative to direct funding for non-profit news production, among the study’s key findings:

  • Public media received approximately $796 million or about 44% of the $1.8 billion in grant money analyzed. Much of this funding supported non-news content such as programming related to the arts, music, culture, or entertainment. Twenty-five public media stations and content producers accounted for 70% of all funding, with grant money going primarily to stations or content producers based in 10 states. Such concentration means that public media organizations across the great majority of states lack the funding necessary to evolve into digital news hubs producing local reporting that fills gaps in newspaper coverage.
  • Magazines generated an estimated $80.1 million in grant support over the six years assessed, accounting for about 5% of all funding. The nonprofit magazine field has winnowed to the degree that a few dozen publications received 99% of foundation funding with a similar number of foundations providing most of the support. Grant making also flowed heavily in the direction of ideological perspectives, with nine liberal/left wing magazines and five conservative/right wing counterparts ranking among the top 25 grant recipients.
  • National news nonprofits were backed by approximately $216 million in foundation funding or about 12% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. Eight out of 10 foundation dollars supported just 25 news nonprofits, with four investigative journalism units topping the list. The leading two dozen recipients were also notable for featuring six deep-vertical news organizations that specialize in coverage of topics like the environment, and six nonprofits that have a clear ideological perspective. Overall, national news nonprofits are highly dependent on about two dozen institutional funders for nearly 70% of the grants distributed over the 6-year period analyzed.
  • Local/state nonprofit news organizations received approximately $80.1 million or about 5% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. As foundations pursued strategies designed to fill gaps in local newspaper reporting, they focused primarily on 11 state/local public affairs news sites, six state/local investigative news units, and coverage specific to health care and the environment. Other major investments backed the Institute for Nonprofit News and related initiatives aimed at building capacity and collaboration across the nonprofit news sector. Local/state news nonprofits also depended on a limited pool of funders for their support, with the Knight Foundation driving most of the growth in the area, accounting for 20% of funding during the six-year period we analyzed.
  • University-based journalism initiatives that produce either local or national coverage of public affairs were backed by an estimated $35.9 million or about 2% of the $1.8 billion analyzed. Just five universities accounted for half of all foundation funding, and 16 of the top 25 grant-receiving campuses were based in either California or the Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. metro areas. In terms of major grantmakers, 25 foundations provided 91% of the funding in the area, with the Knight Foundation accounting for nearly a third of all grant dollars distributed.


The gene editing conversation: Public dialogue will require major investments

In 2014 biochemist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley awoke from a nightmare that would shift the focus of her world-class scientific career. Two years earlier, with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, now director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Doudna had achieved one of the most stunning breakthroughs in the history of biology, becoming the first to use a process called CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the genetic makeup of living organisms. Their “gene-editing” tool would allow scientists to efficiently insert or delete specific bits of DNA with unprecedented precision.

But as applications related to modifying human genes were soon reported in the scientific literature, Doudna began to worry. In the dream, a colleague asked if she would help teach someone how to use CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindrome Repeats). She followed him into a room to be greeted by Adolph Hitler wearing a pig face. The nightmare reinforced her belief that public discussion of the technology was far behind the breakneck pace of its emerging applications. She feared a public backlash that would prevent beneficial forms of gene-editing research from moving forward.

A version of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of American Scientist magazine

Doudna organized a workshop among scientists, ethicists, and other experts; they published a 2015 paper in Science urging an international summit on the ethics of gene-editing and a voluntary pause in scientific research that would alter the genetic makeup of humans. In a TED talk that year, she called for a global conversation about gene editing so scientists and the public could consider the full range of social and ethical implications. Her 2017 book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, coauthored with her former student Samuel Sternberg, follows up on these efforts.

In their book, Doudna and Sternberg systematically review the vast number of applications across the life sciences that CRISPR-Cas9 may enable. With livestock, gene editing can be used to produce leaner meat, to make livestock more resistant to infection, to remove allergens from eggs and milk, to reduce the use of antibiotics, and to achieve other outcomes that benefit human nutrition and animal welfare. In medicine, gene editing is being used to engineer mosquitoes so they no longer spread viruses such as malaria or Zika, and mice so they no longer transmit Lyme disease to ticks, thereby reducing infection rates among humans. In other applications, the gene editing of goats, chickens, and rabbits may allow pharmaceuticals to be manufactured more quickly, at higher yields, and at lower cost than by way of traditional laboratory methods. In the future, gene-edited pigs may even be a major source for lifesaving organ transplants, providing tissues that are less likely to be rejected by human patients.

In a process called somatic gene editing, scientists are exploring ways to treat diseases caused by a single mutated gene such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, and sickle cell disease. The patient’s cells in the affected tissues would be either edited within the body or edited outside and returned to the patient. In both cases, the corrections would not be passed on to offspring. But in terms of human applications, the most widely debated research involves so-called germline gene editing. This process would alter sperm, eggs, and early stage embryos to protect a child against inheritable diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and forms of cancer. But such techniques could also potentially be used to select for specific physical traits or to boost human performance by way of denser bones and greater endurance, creating so-called designer babies. In each application, as a human matured, the altered DNA would be copied into every cell, and passed on to their progeny.

Not surprisingly, public opinion surveys reveal widespread public reservations about the technology and a firm belief that scientists should consult the public before applying gene-editing techniques to humans. Given the many important considerations that gene editing raises, in 2017 the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that scientists invest in ongoing input from the public regarding the benefits and risks of human genome editing, and that more research be conducted to better understand how to facilitate such a process.

But to lead a national and global conversation about gene editing, scientists will need help not only from their colleagues in the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts, but also from journalists and philanthropists. Informed public discussion about gene editing is not possible without high-quality, sustained reporting from journalists with deep knowledge of the subject. And new initiatives designed to understand public attitudes, to facilitate public dialogue, and to report on the complexities of gene editing will not be possible without financial support from philanthropists and their foundations.

A skeptical public

Given that discussion of human gene editing still remains primarily confined to scientific meetings and to elite gatherings such as TED conferences, it is not surprising that a 2016 Pew Research Center survey showed that 42 percent of Americans have heard “nothing at all” about the topic, compared with 48 percent “a little” and 9 percent “a lot.” But polls also show that Americans hold fairly consistent opinions and judgments about gene editing, even as they possess very little information about the complex subject. To do so, individuals actively draw on their religious and cultural values, familiar narratives from popular culture, and similarities to past debates.

For example, in the same Pew survey, when asked about the moral acceptability of gene-editing techniques intended to give healthy babies a reduced risk of disease, only 28 percent of Americans consider the application acceptable, compared with 30 percent who say it is unacceptable and 40 percent who are not sure. Notably, among the one-third of Americans who can be classified as highly religious, only 15 percent consider such applications morally acceptable (see figure above). When asked separately if such an application meddled with nature and crossed a line that should not be crossed, 64 percent of highly religious Americans agreed with the statement.

For many religious Americans, gene editing is likely closely associated with past debates over embryonic stem cell research and fetal tissue research. In these controversies, Christian leaders mobilized opposition to government funding by framing research as a violation of religious teachings. From a traditional Christian perspective, human life begins at conception and is created in God’s image. Embryos are considered to be divinely created human beings. When scientists destroy or alter human embryos, they take on the role of God, violating divine will. Therefore, traditional Christians believe that embryo research is morally wrong and that if it is funded by the government using tax revenues, such funding makes all Americans complicit in destroying human life. In the Pew survey, for example, among those who said gene editing was morally unacceptable, more than one-third of responses made reference to changing God’s plan or violating his will.

But as various survey findings indicate, it is not just strongly religious Americans who have moral reservations about gene editing. Even among nonreligious Americans, 17 percent say that gene editing to give babies a much reduced risk of disease is morally unacceptable, and 37 percent say they are unsure. In a follow-up question, more than one-quarter of nonreligious respondents say they oppose gene editing to improve the health of a baby because it would be meddling with nature and cross a line that should not be crossed. When asked more specifically if saving a baby’s life required testing on human embryos or altering the genetic makeup of the whole population, about half of all Americans say that such scenarios would make the application less acceptable to them (see figure above). A 2016 survey conducted by Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health finds even stronger levels of reservations. In this case, when asked about changing the genes of unborn babies to reduce their risk of developing certain serious diseases, 65 percent of Americans said that such an application should be illegal. More than 80 percent said the same when asked about gene editing to improve intelligence or physical traits.

What explains the reservations voiced by both religious and nonreligious Americans? Bioethicists have used the term Yuck Factor to describe a “visceral repugnance” and “emotional opposition” felt by the public when they first hear about human genetic engineering. This repugnance, wrote University of Chicago ethicist Leon Kass in an oft-cited 1997 article in the New Republic, is an “emotional feeling of deep wisdom,” that leads an individual to “intuit and feel, immediately without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.” The Yuck Factor likely has its origins in Kantian and Christian philosophies of human dignity that permeate Western culture. These traditions, as political theorist Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University described in his 2002 book Our Post Human Future, emphasize that human life has a higher moral place than the rest of the natural world. Therefore, according to these philosophies, even at its earliest stages of development, human life should always be treated with a sacred respect.

Such teachings have shaped Western culture to the extent that their principles are passed on even to those who have never set foot in a church. The Yuck Factor is therefore a relatively intuitive response, a reaction formed below the level of conscious deliberation on the part of an individual, often in the absence of substantive information. When asked about emerging gene-editing techniques that would involve altering human embryos or engineering desired traits, most individuals probably have difficulty articulating why they might believe it to be morally questionable; they just know it when they feel it.

Journalism matters

Although scientists hold a responsibility to engage the public about the social implications of gene editing, informed public dialogue ultimately depends heavily on journalists and their news organizations. Quality science reporting is essential to understanding how and why gene-editing research is being conducted, including the connections between new advances and ongoing debates over funding, governance, regulation, ethics, accessibility, uncertainty, and patent rights. Even in today’s dramatically altered media landscape, coverage in print and online, at both traditional and new media outlets, still drives discussion of complex issues such as gene editing. These news organizations provide the information, frames of reference, and narratives that scientists, journalists, funders, policy makers, and societal leaders frequently draw upon to set policy, make decisions, or communicate with various segments of the public who trust their advice.

Yet for the past two decades, the news media have faced crippling economic and technological disruptions that have forced cutbacks in the amount of reporting on complex science topics such as gene editing. As University of Wisconsin-Madison communication scholar Dietram Scheufele has documented, due to layoffs there are also far fewer veteran journalists on staff who can draw on decades of experience to provide their readers critical context. Industry practices within journalism have also changed. In a business model dependent on Facebook and Google to generate traffic and advertising revenue, former New Republic editor Franklin Foer warns that journalists are being told by their editors to actively seek out trending topics that are likely to catch on or go viral, rather than to rely on their news judgment to decide what are the most important stories to tell readers. As a consequence, coverage of gene editing loses out to the latest sensational cultural event or breaking political scandal. When gene editing is covered, headlines and story angles may exaggerate the technology’s promise and peril in an effort to win scarce reader attention.

Now is the time, therefore, for scientists and philanthropists to help journalists and news organizations to correct for these pressures and biases. They can do so by sponsoring workshops where a diversity of experts and stakeholders gather to discuss with journalists and editors the scientific, ethical, and legal implications of gene editing, making it easier for journalists to cover gene editing accurately and on a regular basis. Philanthropists, universities, and research institutions can also provide fellowships and other sources of financial support that enable journalists to spend the weeks and months required to substantively report on the subject.

But journalists are not the only professionals who are needed to write compellingly about the scientific and social implications of gene editing. Scientists, ethicists, and social scientists can also contribute commentaries and articles to the popular press, offering independent insights and context. In one initiative to help facilitate such articles, the Kavli Foundation is partnering with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and a number of science magazines and online publications (including American Scientist) to train scientists to apply the techniques and standards of journalism in writing about complex topics such as gene editing.

Investing in dialogue

Yet even as quality journalism provides the main architecture around which informed debate about gene editing will take place, the scientific community, along with universities, philanthropies, and research institutions, must also help create opportunities for direct public participation in dialogue and deliberation. Such an effort starts with the sponsorship of carefully conducted social-science research that assesses public discourse about gene editing, the sources of information and arguments that are shaping debate, and the factors that are influencing public attitudes. In turn, this research should inform the design and evaluation of a variety of dialogue-based communication initiatives organized by scientific organizations, government agencies, and universities.

Over the past decades, across Europe and North America, efforts to promote dialogue-based science communication have taken various forms, but as the University of Calgary’s Edna Einsiedel notes, each format shares a few common principles. First, in these initiatives, communication is defined as an iterative back-and-forth process between various segments of the public, experts, and decision-makers. Such approaches assume that there is no single “correct” way to talk about and understand the social implications of a complex subject such as gene editing. Second, rather than being top-down and controlled by scientists and their partners, societal leaders and the public are invited to be active participants in defining what is discussed, sharing their own knowledge and perspectives. Third, there is no single “public” with which to communicate or engage, but rather multiple “publics” exist. These include but are not limited to church leaders and congregations, racial or ethnic groups, parents and patient advocates, and political identity groups such as liberals or conservatives.

Among the most important types of organized dialogue initiatives are smaller, more intimate events that bring together scientists with other societal leaders to facilitate the sharing of perspectives, and the forging of relationships. In one leading example, the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science has organized workshops that convene scientists and clergy to discuss topics of mutual concern and possible disagreement such as embryonic stem cell research. To inform the discussion, focus groups were conducted in advance of the events, and the meetings were professionally facilitated. Scientists and clergy participating in the meetings indicated that the sessions helped break down stereotypes about each other, facilitating learning and mutual respect. In a related initiative, DoSER has worked with seminary schools and synagogues to develop curricula and resources that aid clergy in leading more constructive conversations about complex scientific topics with their congregations.

As these examples suggest, it is important to remember that religion is more than just a belief system that shapes how people understand gene editing. Churches are communication contexts where discussions can at times be framed in strongly moral terms by congregational leaders, reinforced by conversations that churchgoers have with others, and shaped by information provided directly when at church. For these reasons, on a topic such as gene editing, churches often serve as powerful networks of civic recruitment where congregants receive requests to voice their opinion to elected officials. During the debate over embryonic stem cell research, for example, among the strongest predictors of whether individuals had become involved politically on the issue was whether they had discussed or received information about the topic at church. In sum, when it comes to public dialogue about gene editing, scientists can either cede communication at churches to religious leaders or become active partners in facilitating and enriching church-based discussions.

Yet to promote broader public engagement across both religious and nonreligious segments of the public, the scientific community can also benefit by partnering with experts specializing in the humanities, philosophy, and the creative arts. Scholars in the humanities and philosophy draw on literature, religious traditions, and ethical frameworks to help the public consider what is good, what is right, and what is of value about a complex topic such as gene editing. Writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative professionals are among society’s most inspiring storytellers about complex issues, and they are able to communicate about gene editing in imaginative, compelling, and novel ways. Integrated into public dialogue initiatives, their work can motivate different forms of learning, sponsor critical reflection and deliberation, and produce thought-provoking visions of the future.

In a past example that serves as a prototype for such initiatives, faculty at the University of Alberta in Canada hosted workshops in 2008 that facilitated discussions about the social implications of human genetic engineering among visual artists, scientists, bioethicists, and social scientists. Informed by their conversations together, the artists were commissioned to produce visual works reflecting on the themes discussed, while the other participants were asked to write short essays. The project culminated in the exhibit “Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society, and Art,” which toured North America. As part of the exhibit tour, forums were held at museum venues, generating local news coverage of the themes expressed. The essays along with the artistic works were published as part of a book and catalog sold at art museums, bookstores, and online.

Sean Caulfield & Roy Mills, University of Alberta; End Point, from “Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society, and Art” exhibition at the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, November 2008–January 2009.

Apart from artistic exhibits, classic works of literature and films can also serve a similar function in stimulating public dialogue. For example, the 1997 film Gattaca is often used in college classrooms to stimulate student discussion of the social implications of human engineering. Research suggests that rather than alarming audiences, science fiction TV and film portrayals may help familiarize viewers with the moral dimensions of human genetic engineering, thereby helping them overcome their intuitive Yuck Factor reservations. This year, in recognition of the 200-year anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, faculty at Arizona State University have published an annotated version of the novel that also features essays from scientists and scholars in the humanities and social sciences. With support from the National Science Foundation, the university is also coordinating nationwide events and activities at science museums and centers, which include exhibits, an online multimedia game, and at-home activities for use by parents. Each is carefully designed to foster discussion about the social and ethical dimensions of gene editing and other technological innovations.

For many, such broad-based initiatives may be beyond their ability to organize or to fund. Major investments in public dialogue and in supporting high-quality journalism about gene editing will take coordinated action from leaders of the scientific community and their peers across fields including the news media and philanthropy. But scientists and others should not overlook the contributions to public dialogue they can make starting right now. University scientists, by way of their classrooms and new degree programs, can partner with their peers in the social sciences and humanities to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to think critically about the future of gene editing and similar advances. At Cornell University, for example, one model to emulate is the undergraduate major in Biology and Society. Among the most popular on campus, the major enables students to group foundational training in the biological sciences with coursework in science communication, the social sciences, and the humanities.

Within their local communities, individual scientists can also actively encourage discussions about gene editing by way of informal conversations and by volunteering to give presentations to community groups, connecting with others by way of shared interests, values, and identities. Ultimately, for Jennifer Doudna, her goal is to motivate the next generation of scientists to engage much more actively and directly with the public, applying the principle of “discussion without dictation” on how gene editing should be used. All scientists, regardless of discipline, she argues in her recent book, must be prepared to participate in conversations with the public about the far-reaching consequences of gene editing and similarly powerful technologies.


Nisbet, M. (2018). The Gene-Editing Conversation. American Scientist, 106(1), 15-19.


Caulfield, S., C. Gillespie, and T. Caulfield (eds.). 2011. Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art. Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta Press.

Doudna, J., and S. H. Sternberg. 2017. A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Einsiedel, E. F. 2014. Publics and their participation in science and technology. In M. Bucchi and B. Trench (eds.). Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology. New York, NY: Routledge.

Foer, F. 2017. World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. New York, NY: Penguin.

Fukuyama, F. 2003. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Funk, C., B. Kennedy, and E. P. Sciupac. 2016. U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to “Enhance” Human Abilities. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Published online June 26, updated November 2.

Kass, L. 1997. The wisdom of repugnance. The New Republic, June 2, pp. 17-26.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Nisbet, M. C. 2005. The competition for worldviews: Values, information, and public support for stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 17:90-112.

Nisbet, M., and E. M. Markowitz. 2014. Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond political partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PloS One 9(2):e88473.

Scheufele, D.A. 2013. Communicating science in social settings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(Supplement 3):14040-14047.

Scheufele, D. A., et al. 2017. U.S. attitudes on human genome editing. Science 357:553-554.
Shapshay, S. (ed.). 2009. Bioethics at the Movies. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Divided expectations: Why we need a new dialogue about science, inequality, and society

If you are reading this column, you have likely benefited from the scientific and technological advances that have transformed the world’s economy. For well-educated professionals who form the core audience for popular science magazines, these innovations have created new wealth and career opportunities. Yet paradoxically, the very success of the science and engineering sector has also created the conditions that have led so many others to distrust experts and the professional class. The same advances that have enriched those at the top of the global knowledge economy have also eliminated millions of jobs among those at the bottom, transforming entire industries and geographic regions, generating public resentment, and seeding political polarization.

When we think about the roots of antagonism toward scientific expertise in the United States, we too often focus on either partisan or religious differences. Yet analyses I have conducted with several colleagues of large-scale national public opinion surveys show that disparities related to income, education, and race play an even more important role in how Americans view the relationship between science and society, with these reservations transcending traditional left-right ideological differences.

A version of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

When asked generally about the societal impact of scientific advances and technological innovations, those members of the U.S. public who express the strongest optimism tend to be white, hold a college degree or higher, and rank among the top quartile in terms of income. These individuals can justifiably expect that their careers will benefit from scientific innovations and that they will be able to afford new technologies and medical treatments. In contrast, individuals who express the strongest reservations about science and technology tend to hold a high school degree or less, earn less than $50,000 annually, and are more likely to be non-white. These individuals may be justifiably concerned about how they will compete in an innovation-based economy, afford access to new technologies or medical advances, and how such advances may reinforce patterns of discrimination and other social disparities (Nisbet and Markowitz 2014).

Perhaps in no area is the potential for public anxiety based on socio-
economic disparities clearer than in relation to driverless cars, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI). These innovations are promoted as boosting the economy, contributing to public safety and environmental protection, and enhancing consumer convenience. They are also likely to eliminate the jobs of millions of truck drivers, taxi operators, retail workers, and professionals. Tech companies risk further public backlash as they seek to fast track the adoption of driverless cars and AI applications, spending millions to avoid regulation (Lloyd 2017).

In a recent Pew survey, when asked to consider a future in which robots and computers can do many human jobs, more than twice as many Americans (72 percent) expressed worry than enthusiasm (33 percent) and a similar proportion expected that economic inequality would become much worse as a result of such advances. Concerns about the negative impact of workplace innovations were strongest among those lacking a four-year college degree (Pew Research Center 2017a).

Americans also express strong reservations about the impact on social inequality of biomedical innovations related to human enhancement. Strong majorities say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene editing, brain chips, and synthetic blood and that these technologies would become available before they were fully understood. Much of their anxiety relates to anticipated disparities: more than 70 percent fear these innovations would exacerbate the divide between “haves” and “have-nots,” because they would only be available to the wealthy (Pew Research Center 2017b).

A Different Conversation

Noting broad-based public concern about the use of gene editing for human enhancement, a 2017 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences recommended that scientists and policymakers should facilitate ongoing input from the public regarding the benefits and risks of human genome editing and that more research was needed on how to effectively facilitate such a process (National Academies 2017). Studies also show broad-based belief among Americans that scientists should consult the public before pursuing gene editing applications (Scheufele et al. 2017).

Yet if scientists, engineers, university leaders, and CEOs are to address growing concerns about gene editing and other technological innovations, they will need to turn to novel approaches for engaging segments of the public from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Traditional science communication efforts that focus on informally educating the public by way of TV documentaries, popular science books and magazines, and science museums tend to engage the best-educated and highest-earning Americans who on average are the heaviest consumers of these resources, a group that tends to be already enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and optimistic about technological innovations.

A recent Pew survey (2017c), for example, finds that only about 17 percent of Americans are active news consumers, defined as those who seek out and consume science news at least a few times a week. This group tends to be on average better educated, higher wage earners, and predominantly white. In turn, attention to science news along with socio-economic status are the strongest predictors of whether an individual engages in other informal science education activities, such as attending a museum, taking up a science-related hobby, or participating in a citizen science project.

Such disparities in attention present major barriers to addressing public reservations and misconceptions. Consider past communication and outreach efforts related to nanotechnology. Between 2004 and 2007, as hundreds of nanotechnology-related products and applications were introduced into the U.S. marketplace, knowledge of nanotechnology increased substantially among the best educated but declined among the least educated. These disparities in knowledge occurred even as news coverage of nanotech increased and government agencies, science museums, and universities invested considerable resources in informal education and outreach activities.

This “knowledge gap” effect has been tracked by researchers across issues for several decades. As an emerging scientific issue such as nanotech, gene editing, or artificial intelligence gains news attention and is the subject of outreach at museums and other venues, those individuals who hold higher socio-economic status are likely to acquire knowledge at a faster rate than their lower status counterparts, so that the difference in knowledge between these segments will tend to increase rather than decrease.

The reason for these disparities is that better educated individuals tend to absorb new information more efficiently and can rely on their equally well-educated friends and family members to discuss and follow up on concepts they do not understand. As higher wage earners, they also possess the financial means and time to take advantage of high quality sources of news coverage and to attend science museums and similar cultural institutions. In 2012, 40 percent of Americans in the top quartile of wage earners said they had visited a natural history museum or a science center during the past year compared to less than 20 percent among those in the bottom quartile. The knowledge gap effect has even been observed relative to media outreach strategies such as Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel programs that are intended to engage broader audiences who otherwise may never consume science-related information (Corley and Scheufele 2010; Nisbet et al. 2015).

Despite its popularity as a tool among scientists and their allies, social media are no panacea, and initiatives that invest heavily in social media outreach at the expense of other strategies may only reinforce disparities and divisions. According to Pew (2017c), a substantial proportion of social media users say that they incidentally bump into science news stories that they otherwise would not have sought out. But about twice as many social media users also say they mostly distrust rather than trust the science posts they encounter. This sentiment is in line with a growing skepticism of social media generally, and is confounded by the tendency for social media to facilitate the spread of misinformation, to foster incivility, and to inflame group based differences rather than transcend them.

Given public concerns about the role that scientific innovations will play in contributing to rising inequality, scientists and their partners must start to directly address these reservations. Traditional approaches to science communication will not be enough—nor will social media efforts—no matter how clever or well resourced. It is time to focus on novel methods for promoting a more fruitful dialogue about science and society, bringing scientists and people of diverse backgrounds together to spend time talking to each other, contributing to mutual appreciation and understanding, and forging new relationships and insights.


Nisbet, M.C. (2018). Divided Expectations: Why We Need a New Dialogue About Science, Inequality and Society. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, Jan/Feb. 


  • Corley, E.A. and D.A. Scheufele. 2010. Outreach gone wrong? When we talk nano to the public, we are leaving behind key audiences. The Scientist 24(1): 22.
  • Lloyd, L. 2017. A march won’t make the public respect science. (April 14).
  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Nisbet, E.C., K.E. Cooper, and M. Ellithorpe. 2015. Ignorance or bias? Evaluating the ideological and informational drivers of communication gaps about climate change. Public Understanding of Science 24(3): 285–301.
  • Nisbet, M., and E.M. Markowitz. 2014. Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond political partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PloS One 9(2): e88473.
  • Pew Research Center. 2017a. Automation in Everyday Life. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  • ———. 2017b. U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to ‘Enhance’ Human Abilities. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  • ———. 2017c. Science News and Information Today. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  • Scheufele, D.A., M.A, Xenos, E.L. Howell, et al. 2017. US attitudes on human genome editing. Science 357(6351): 553–554.

Evolution in the college classroom: Facilitating conversations about science and religion

Sept. 1, 2017 — For most American college students, their first serious encounter with the theory of evolution may come as part of an introductory biology course. As surprising as this might sound, the unfortunate reality is that in many high schools across the country evolution is often avoided or covered superficially as part of a crammed science curriculum, taught by teachers who are under-qualified and poorly supported (Friedrichsen et al. 2016).

The lack of prior familiarity with evolution presents a particular challenge to religious students who are likely to have questions about how to reconcile what they are learning in the college classroom with their own faith. Surveys indicate that more than half of all students enrolled in introductory biology courses believe in God and consider themselves religious. If their questions about science and faith go unaddressed as part of their coursework, research suggests that learning is likely to be inhibited. Even though a religious student may successfully complete exams and assignments that test their knowledge of evolutionary science, their scores may not reflect a deeper acceptance of what they learned. These students may leave a course still doubting whether evolution is the best (and only) scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth (Barnes and Brownwell 2016).

A version of this article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Because of their experience in introductory biology courses, many religious students may also be turned off from pursuing a career in science. Studies indicate that students are more likely to choose a science career if they feel a sense of belonging as part of their coursework. Yet for many religious students, prevailing cultural cues tell them that science and religion are in conflict and that religious people lack competence or ability in science. Research shows that these false stereotypes, which are sometimes voiced by their instructors and peers, can harm the performance of religious students on science exams, further eroding their interest in science (Rios et al. 2015).

Much of student uncertainty about evolution may be caused by a lack of awareness of church teaching or doctrine on the matter. Most major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church, and mainline Protestant churches, have either a neutral or explicitly affirmative stance on evolution, acknowledging the consistency with church doctrine (National Academy of Sciences 2008). In other religious traditions such as evangelicalism, high-profile scientists such as Francis Collins (2006) have broken ranks with church doctrine to discuss openly how they reconcile science with their evangelical faith. For conservative Christian students, research indicates that having such a role model is a key contributor to their acceptance of evolution (Manwaring et al. 2015).

Unfortunately, most faculty members in the life sciences are not prepared to adequately address the questions that religious students hold about the connections between science and faith. Surveys show that the great majority of life science faculty are nonreligious, and that many equate religious belief with fundamentalism, assuming that faith by definition is in conflict with science. Moreover, when asked, most do not see religion as a topic appropriate for a science course. Even those instructors who want to facilitate more thoughtful classroom conversations about science and religion often lack the confidence and training to do so effectively, and they therefore avoid the topic (Barnes and Brownwell 2016).

For these reasons, in recent years, researchers have begun to test approaches embedded in introductory biology courses for facilitating more constructive conversations about science and religion that promote student acceptance of evolution. The findings point to promising models for instructors to adopt and offer insight on strategies for encouraging more constructive public dialogue about science and religion more generally.

Getting beyond conflict

In a study conducted at Arizona State University, instructors led ninety-five students enrolled in an introductory biology course through a two-week module focused on science, evolution, and religion. In addition to chapters from their textbook on natural selection and speciation, students were also required to read Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a booklet published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2008).

The National Academy booklet was intended for use by scientists, teachers, parents, and school board members who wanted to engage in more constructive conversations with others who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum. To guide their efforts, the National Academy commissioned focus groups and a national survey to gauge the public’s understanding of the processes, nature, and limits of science. The authoring committee also wanted to test various frames of reference that explained why alternatives to evolution were inappropriate for science class (Labov and Pope 2008; Nisbet and Scheufele 2009).

The committee had expected that a convincing storyline for the public would be a traditional emphasis on past legal decisions and the doctrine of church-state separation. Yet the data revealed that audiences were not persuaded by this framing of the issue. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, the research pointed to the effectiveness of defining evolutionary science in terms of social progress, explaining its role as a building block for advances in medicine and agriculture. The research also underscored the effectiveness of reassuring the public that evolution and religious faith can be fully compatible.

In light of this feedback, the National Academy committee decided to structure the final version of the report around these main points of emphasis. “The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith,” states the report. “Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future.”

In the Arizona State experiment, drawing on themes from the booklet, instructors emphasized that “scientists study natural causes within the natural world, whereas religious ideas address questions of morality, purpose, and the existence of a higher power.” If religious beliefs were limited to questions of purpose, ethics, and the existence of God, then they were not in conflict with evolution.

To evaluate the impact of the module, surveys were administered to the class before and after the module was completed. In contrast to the more than 50 percent of students at the start of the module who said they perceived religion and evolution as in conflict, only 26 percent said the same at the end, indicating that the module had reduced by nearly half the number of students holding a “conflict” outlook. More specifically, eleven out of the thirty-two students who said they perceived conflict at the start of the course shifted their outlook. Among those who were unsure at the start, eight out of fifteen indicated that evolution and religion were compatible after completing the module. Interestingly, there was no observable change in student scores on measures of religiosity (Barnes et al. 2017).

In a second study conducted at Brigham Young University, researchers focused specifically on how Mormon students—if informed of the Mormon church’s official neutral position on evolution—may be more likely to subsequently accept evolutionary theory. In this case, the Mormon Church maintains strict belief in God as the creator, but in its statements it does not confirm or deny the potential for theistic evolution, leaving room for Mormons to adopt a scientific interpretation. The experiment involved more than 1,500 nonmajors enrolled in introductory biology courses. In the test condition, as part of the semester, students participated in at least one lecture and discussion of a “BYU Evolution Packet” that discussed the official Mormon church stance on human origins. After reading the packet, during the class discussion, students were encouraged to ask questions and make comments. The control condition had access to the BYU Evolution Packet, but no time was spent as part of the course in discussing the packet (Manwaring et al. 2015).

For both the experimental and control conditions, overall student acceptance of evolution increased across the semester, and this greater level of acceptance remained five to seven months after completion of the course. But in the experimental condition that included the lecture on official Mormon teachings, gains in acceptance of evolution were significantly higher than in the control condition. As the researchers note, at the outset of the course, those students who held more misconceptions about the Mormon church’s stance on evolution were some of the least likely to accept the theory of evolution. Their analysis indicates that the booklet and single lecture on the topic corrected many of these misconceptions among the participating students, which in turn led to the higher gains in student acceptance of evolution in comparison to the control condition (Manwaring et al. 2015).


For most college students, the introductory courses they take during their first few college years may be the only thoughtful discussions of science and religion that they can draw on for the rest of their adult lives. If these students leave a science course lacking a strong motivation for further information on the topic, they can easily avoid the many available popular science books, articles, and films. When they do incidentally come across coverage in the news media, evolution is most likely to be framed in terms of controversy and irreconcilable conflict with religion (Mooney and Nisbet 2005).

We tend to think about general science education at the college level as a vehicle for imparting knowledge about the physical world, particularly in terms of basic science literacy. But general education science courses should also serve a core civic purpose, imparting critical understanding of the complex relationship between science and society, modeling for students’ thoughtful ways to negotiate differences. The first few studies formally evaluating approaches to discussing evolution and religion are models to build on. More research is needed to expand the evidence-base specific to evolution and to evaluate approaches for effectively discussing other challenging topics such as climate change or gene editing.


Nisbet, M.C. (2017, Sept/Oct). Evolution in College Classrooms: Facilitating Conversations about Science and Religion. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine.


  • Barnes, M.E., and S.E. Brownell. 2016. Practices and perspectives of college instructors on addressing religious beliefs when teaching evolution. CBE-Life Sciences Education 15(2).
  • Barnes, M.E., J. Elser, and S.E. Brownell. 2017. Two-week evolution module reduces perceived conflict between evolution and religion for religious and non-religious students. American Biology Teacher 79(2): 104–111.
  • Collins, F.S. 2006. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Friedrichsen, P.J., N. Linke, and E. Barnett. 2016. Biology teachers’ professional development needs for teaching evolution. Science Educator 25(1).
  • Labov, J.B., and B.K. Pope. 2008. Understanding our audiences: The design and evolution of science, evolution, and creationism. CBE-Life Sciences Education7(1): 20–24.
  • Manwaring, K.F., J.L. Jensen, R.A. Gill, et al. 2015. Influencing highly religious undergraduate perceptions of evolution: Mormons as a case study. Evolution: Education and Outreach 8(1): 23.
  • Mooney, C., and M.C. Nisbet. 2005. Undoing Darwin. Columbia Journalism Review 44(3): 30–39.
  • National Academy of Sciences. 2008. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Available online at
  • Nisbet, M.C., and D.A. Scheufele. 2009. What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany96(10): 1767–1778.
  • Rios, K., Z.H. Cheng, R.R. Totton, et al. 2015. Negative stereotypes cause Christians to underperform in and disidentify with science. Social Psychological and Personality Science 6(8): 959–967.

MIT rejects fossil fuel divestment but is still a leader on climate change

October 23, 2015 —The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced this week a new climate change action plan that rejects calls from activists to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

The best way for the university to tackle climate change, argued MIT senior leaders, is through active engagement of “fossil fuel giants that have mastered the challenges of delivering energy to millions of households.”

MIT over the next five years will dedicate more than US$300 million to the creation of eight low-carbon energy research centers, where faculty and students will partner with industry on developing breakthrough technologies.

The university also plans new environmental sustainability degrees and courses, and to use its international convening power to spark collaborations and ideas across societal sectors.

The goal is to “shift the public dialogue from deadlocked argument to a constructive conversation about solving problems,” wrote the MIT leadership team.

“We’re talking about a global moon shot, and engagement is the only way to get there,” university president L Rafael Reif told reporters.

MIT’s bold focus on societal engagement is a model for other universities and colleges to emulate.

As controversial as it might be, MIT’s decision defines a path for other research universities to follow. Each college or university must act on its responsibility to address the urgent threat of climate change in ways that balance competing constituencies and that leverage their unique institutional capabilities.

Pressure from a new social movement

The debate over fossil fuel divestment began three years ago, sparked by a magazine article that quickly went viral online.

The fossil fuel industry “has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth,” wrote Bill McKibben at Rolling Stone. “It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

Drawing comparisons to the anti-apartheid effort, McKibben urged a mass movement pressuring universities, colleges, churches and local governments to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies.

McKibben’s article drew millions of readers, serving as the manifesto for activists at more than 200 campuses worldwide who have lobbied their institutions to divest from fossil fuel industries.

On many campuses, the divestment movement has provided passionate climate advocates a personally relevant focus on their local institutions, and the hope that their actions can make at least a limited symbolic difference.

The campaign has also created important opportunities for student activists to learn about coalition building, negotiation and compromise, with campus forums and events sparking critical reflection on what climate change means for society and how everyday citizens, especially young people, can become involved.

At MIT, responding to pressure from the student group Fossil Free MIT, the new climate action plan was informed by a year of consultation with students, faculty, alumni and other stakeholders.

Forcing campus leaders to choose sides

The MIT Climate Conversation Committee organized activities that included an Idea Bank, a community‑wide survey, a series of public events guided by the survey responses and a campus Listening Tour.

Among the actions recommended by the committee were a leading role for MIT in responding to disinformation about climate change and a plan to turn the campus – through research, programs, and a carbon price – into a living sustainability lab.

Though not a formal recommendation, three-quarters of the committee members supported the university divesting from coal and tar sand companies but not from other fossil fuel industry members.

In their recent decision, university leadership viewed the issue differently, concluding that fossil fuel divestment “and its core tactic of public shaming” were incompatible with the broader strategy of solutions-focused societal engagement.

For many divestment activists, the movement is fundamentally about forcing university leaders and boards of trustees “to choose which side of the issue they are on.

As a consequence, on some campuses, such as McKibben’s alma mater Harvard University, the divestment campaign has created intense conflict and polarization, pitting students, alumni, faculty and administrators against each other.

In April 2015, as McKibben joined with other prominent alumni and students at sit-ins and protests on Harvard Yard, the university’s administration forcefully rejected demands for divestment.

Harvard leaders argued that the university’s most effective response to climate change would be to maximize investments in research, teaching and students.

“Insinuations that Harvard is not committed to confronting climate change because it does not embrace (Bill) McKibben’s preferred tactic are simply and demonstrably wrong,” wrote Harvard president Drew Faust in a letter to the Boston Globe.

In the wake of MIT’s decision, campus activists appear to have embarked on a similar strategy to escalate conflict.

“This announcement is business-as-usual repackaged,” said a student leader of Fossil Free MIT, which staged a sit-in to protest the university’s decision. “MIT has put money before morals and its students’ futures today.”

McKibben went further, alleging that MIT had caved to pressure from oil industry billionaire David Koch, who has given some $185 million to MIT.

Higher education in turbulent times

For universities and colleges, there is no clear right or wrong choice on fossil fuel divestment, despite what activists might insist.

Each institution must weigh and consider its own unique constituencies and the strategies by which it can make the biggest difference on climate change.

For liberal arts colleges that have small endowments, lack research collaborations with industry and brand themselves in terms of environmental values, divesting may be the right choice.

In other cases likes Stanford University, the choice to divest from the coal industry reflected in part the university’s strong ties to the renewable energy sector, and the lobbying of billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, a major donor and trustee.

But for other research universities that can make a major impact through research and graduate training on the fossil fuel industry, the symbolic choice to divest may impair other ways that the institution can make a more meaningful difference.

For example, among the research centers planned by MIT is one focusing on developing carbon capture and sequestration. Many experts warn that thousands of coal and natural gas plants worldwide will have to be fitted with the technology in order to limit global emissions to safe levels.

Rapid development and adoption of carbon capture technology will require close collaboration between leading research universities like MIT and the fossil fuel industry.

In this case, MIT’s approach to the fossil fuel divestment question offers several valuable lessons for other research universities as they weigh similar choices.

Lessons from MIT

First, the university’s year-long effort at campus consultation and engagement has likely helped many students, faculty and alumni better understand and appreciate competing perspectives, and to develop skills and experience in grappling with their tensions and uncertainties.

Universities and colleges are the places where we can most effectively experiment with communication initiatives that challenge how each of us think and talk about the choices we face on climate change.

Through these activities, institutions of higher education can generate the conditions for eventual change in national politics, by rewiring our expectations and norms relative to public debate and by forging relationships and connections that span ideological differences and worldviews.

Second, MIT’s climate action plan can also serve as a model for how major research universities can accelerate effective societal actions on climate change by collaborating with a diversity of industry members, including fossil fuel giants.

This approach involves using research, expert analysis and industry partnerships to broaden the menu of effective policy options and low carbon energy technologies that society has to choose from in combating climate change.

Under these conditions, it will be easier to gain support for action from across the political spectrum in the US and from a diversity of countries internationally. Such a strategy also makes powerful industry groups potential allies, rather than morally symbolic enemies.

–This article originally appeared at The Conversation US.


Nisbet, M.C. (2015, Oct. 23). MIT rejects fossil fuel divestment but is still a leader on climate change. The Conversation.

A call for greater diversity of thought in Environmental Studies courses

May 15, 2015 —Even before Jacqueline Ho enrolled in her first environmental studies course at college, her thinking about climate change had been shaped during her years growing up in Singapore reading books by the environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben.

At college, ideas first planted by McKibben were reinforced in courses where she read classics by Aldo Leopold and Garrett Hardin, along with recent books by Van Jones and Elizabeth Kolbert.

With these authors anchoring her understanding, it was easy for Ho to believe about climate change “that fossil fuel corporations were to blame, that we had a suite of low-carbon technologies we could deploy immediately, and that grassroots solutions held promise,” she recalls.

Yet only after taking an upper-level political science course on renewable energy and completing a summer fellowship with the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank, was Ho introduced to alternative ways of thinking about climate change as a social problem and the possible solutions.

“I came to see the transition to a clean-energy economy as an issue requiring technological innovation and deployment, in addition to simply being caused by insufficient climate awareness or the inefficient pricing of fossil-based energy,” she writes in a new co-authored study in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“Nuclear power, an energy solution I seldom encountered in my classes except in the context of the negative health impacts of uranium mining, became a default alternative energy option in my mind,” she writes.

Today, several core concepts and insights from her introductory courses continue to guide her work as a researcher at Resources for the Future, an environmental economics think tank. “Yet, in many ways, I would have appreciated being exposed to a greater diversity of perspectives and solutions earlier in my education so that I could have learned to wrestle with these controversial perspectives alongside my environmentally minded peers,” she writes.

Influencing generations of students

Motivated by her experience, in the recent study, Ho and Eric Kennedy (a doctoral student at Arizona State University) analyzed 22 syllabi from introductory environmental studies courses taught at top-ranked North American research universities and liberal arts colleges. They recorded course descriptions, objectives, activities, and readings according to specific themes, topics, and perspectives.

Of the 22 syllabi assessed, less than half explicitly mentioned the importance of critical thinking or exposing students to competing perspectives. Only 10 made any reference to the fact that even among those advocating for action to address a problem like climate change, there are competing narratives about the major societal challenges, the possible technological solutions, and the political strategies needed.

Instead, in most cases, diverging views on climate change were defined relatively simplistically in terms of the clash between mainstream scientists and the false claims of climate “deniers.”

To more formally assess the diversity of perspectives offered about climate change, Kennedy and Ho applied a typology that I developed in a 2014 paper categorizing key differences among three distinct groups of public intellectuals arguing for action on the issue (see table, below).

In defining the social and political implications of climate change, the three groups of intellectuals featured in the table employ unique discourses, narratives, and frames of reference. These discourses help catalyze ways of thinking that bind otherwise disconnected generations of students, academics, advocates, and journalists into a shared view of climate change as a social problem.

Despite their usefulness in making sense of complexity and coordinating strategy, these discourses, if not consistently re-assessed and critically evaluated, can also lock in powerful forms of groupthink that derail efforts to effectively address climate change.

Courses in environmental studies programs should provide essential formative experiences where students engage in critical assessment, cross-learning, and the integration of perspectives about climate change and other environmental problems.

But Kennedy and Ho’s analysis indicates that many courses fall short of these important objectives.

Of the 14 classes that assigned specific readings on climate change and energy, nine assigned at least one reading from the writers listed in the table, reflecting the influence and reach of high-profile intellectuals like Bill McKibben.

Yet, only two syllabi included voices from two of the groups of climate thinkers, and only one class featured all three. The remaining courses only included readings from a single perspective. Only one syllabus focused on adaptation and resilience as an important policy response to climate change.

Promoting critical reflection and learning

Given the small sample size used in the study, Kennedy and Ho intend their research to be exploratory rather than conclusive. However, their initial analysis does suggest that the selective framing of climate change in some of the courses they analyzed could encourage students to focus on the “catastrophic consequences of climate change, climate denial among politicians and the public, pricing carbon, the intergenerational ethics of climate change, and the potential for currently available low-carbon technologies to meet our energy needs.”

Each of these are important dimensions of the problem, yet they are not the only considerations that should inform the outlook of students.

Potentially overlooked are disagreements over the proper relationship between humans and nature in the Anthropocene, the role of government spending and planning (rather than the market) in driving technological innovation, the need for investments in nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage (to complement renewables), or policy actions that make society and ecosystems more resilient to climate impacts.

(See for example the recent Ecomodernist Manifesto and related debate for more discussion of these themes.)

Kennedy and Ho are clear that they are not recommending that environmental studies courses “teach false or manufactured controversies (ie, climate change denial) nor abdicate a responsibility to study and articulate concerns about environmental impacts.”

Instead, their analysis underscores why environmental studies courses should explicitly “acknowledge the existence of diverse perspectives on environmental issues, and balance perspectives and discourses with critical counterpoints.” This should include teaching about “the use and misuse of science in political debates not only in the context of climate denial, but also as it applies to evaluating possible strategies or energy options.”

–This article originally appeared at The Conversation US.


Nisbet, M.C. (2015, May 4). A Call for Greater Diversity of Thought in Environmental Studies Courses. The Conversation.


Kennedy, E. B., & Ho, J. (2015). Discursive diversity in introductory environmental studies. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 5(2), 200-206.

Nisbet, M.C. (2014). Disruptive Ideas: Public Intellectuals and their Arguments for Action on Climate Change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews Climate Change, 5, 809–823.