Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2016

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication and Mass Communication/Interdisciplinary


Laura Lindenfeld

Second Committee Member

Kathleen Bell

Third Committee Member

Jennifer E. Moore

Additional Committee Members

Todd Norton

Shihfen Tu


The complex socio-ecological problems we face today often require that researchers collaborate with individuals and organizations outside of their own disciplines and, oftentimes, outside of academia entirely. This sustainability science model encourages university researchers to engage in participatory models of engagement, where nonscientific publics and scientists working outside of academe are invited to co-produce knowledge and, through collaboration, arrive at solutions for sustainability. Despite the popularity of participatory models of engagement in sustainability science, very little research has examined sustainability science researchers’ perceptions of epistemic authority in conjunction with their engagement behavior. This kind of work is important given that the epistemic privileging of science can function as a significant barrier to the creation of meaningful solutions, particularly when it comes to persuading diverse groups of people to buy-in to one particular solution over another in complex sustainability-related contexts.

I combine science communication theory with the concepts of epistemic authority and expertise to explore stakeholder engagement within a large sustainability science research effort. In chapter one, I explore the potential underlying factors, including epistemic assumptions, that drive model use, specifically addressing the continued use of the diffusion model (i.e. public deficit) in science communication research and practice. In chapter two, I qualitatively explore the extent to which sustainability science researchers afford science epistemic authority and assess their use of different models of science communication within their stakeholder engagement efforts. The results of chapter two challenge the assumption that sustainability science creates an egalitarian epistemic environment and the presumed connection between sustainability science and participatory models of engagement. In chapter three, I quantitatively examine the relationship between NEST researchers’ perceptions of stakeholder expertise and their science communication behavior. Results of this chapter three indicate a positive relationship between how sustainability science researchers perceive the expertise level of their stakeholder partners and the manner in which they engage those partners. Taken together, this work adds to the growing body of literature in science communication that explores how different models of science communication emerge and demonstrates the value of studying the relationship between epistemic assumptions and science communication practice.