Brian G.  Southwell, PhD

Brian G. Southwell, PhD

Senior Director, Science in the Public Sphere

Expertise: Social ScienceCommunicationHuman BehaviorZika Virus preventionMisinformation

Dr. Brian Southwell is Senior Director of the Science in the Public Sphere Program in the Center for Communication Science at RTI International. He is a social scientist who oversees quantitative and qualitative research to assess risk perceptions, mental models of scientific concepts, and public trust in science and scientists. Southwell also is an active participant in efforts to address public understanding of science through peer-reviewed publications as well as public commentary, talks in venues such as the Aspen Ideas Festival, and advising for projects such as NOVA Science Studio.  

Southwell has applied his background in communication and human behavior to a variety of dilemmas including public understanding of emerging infectious diseases and trust in science. In an effort to examine public attitudes and perceptions concerning the Zika virus, for example, he led a study in Guatemala to understand mental models of Zika virus disease. More recently, Southwell has written about public perceptions related to COVID-19.

Southwell is also an adjunct professor with Duke University, where he is affiliated with the interdisciplinary Social Science Research Institute and has served as a Duke-RTI Scholar. In addition, he has served the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 2011; he currently is an adjunct associate professor with UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health and advises graduate students in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

He served almost a decade at the University of Minnesota prior to these appointments, most recently as a tenured associate professor and director of graduate studies in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and has worked for a variety of nonprofit and government organizations.

In 2015, Southwell created a public radio show for WNCU-FM, “The Measure of Everyday Life,” which he hosts. The show airs weekly on WNCU and focuses on the intersections between social science and public discourse.

Southwell's award-winning research and theoretical contributions appear in more than 100 journal articles and chapters. In 2013, he published the book Social Networks and Popular Understanding of Science and Health. He has served as senior editor for Health Communication and as a member of numerous other editorial boards, including Communication Research and Public Opinion Quarterly. He published the edited book Innovations in Home Energy Use: A Sourcebook for Behavior Change in 2016. In 2018, he coedited Misinformation and Mass Audiences, published by the University of Texas Press. Southwell's latest book, from RTI Press, is Measuring Everyday Life: Talking About Research and Why It Matters, curated from interviews featured on the public radio show.

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