Dr. Gustafson studies public opinion and strategic communication in science and environmental issues. Using surveys and communication experiments, he assesses how various demographic and political groups think about and respond to these issues. For example, his research has identified how political polarization develops on environmental issues, and how the public reacts to portrayals of uncertainty in science. His findings help develop more effective strategies for communicating science to the public
Dr. Gustafson became interested in science and environmental communication as a graduate student. At the time, he was studying theories of persuasion and social influence. However, he wanted his research to make a positive impact on society. This led him to study persuasive communication related to climate change and other environmental issues.
Current Research and Outreach
Dr. Gustafson has collaborated with a wide range of scholars (from political scientists to geographers and literary scholars) and a wide range of organizations (from nonprofit advocacy groups to media companies). A primary goal of his work is to help these different groups improve the way that they communicate about science issues to the public.
A key player in public science communication is the news media. In a forthcoming report, Dr. Gustafson and his colleagues at Yale and George Mason Universities use public opinion data to show that many Americans want the news media to do more to address the issue of climate change. Dr. Gustafson says this study is particularly important, because many people get their information about science and environmental issues from the news. If news organizations are made aware that their audience wants more and better information about important issues like climate change, this may lead to increased news coverage, which can in turn have large impacts on public support for climate action.
Dr. Gustafson noted that the current COVID-19 pandemic is a fascinating example of the oftentimes fraught and polarized relationship between science and the public. Currently, opinions about the dangers of pandemic and participation in recommended preventative actions show a sharp divide along party lines. Dr. Gustafson noted that this is a clear example of the need for clear, effective science communication from trusted experts. In a study conducted earlier this spring, Dr. Gustafson and his colleagues found that the CDC’s official recommendation to wear masks resulted in an immediate and dramatic increase in mask-wearing behavior.