Research Interests

I work primarily at the intersection of natural science, social science, and public policy with a focus on coupled human-natural systems and on the ways in which scientific knowledge and uncertainty affect policy decisions about the environment.

My current work makes extensive use of agent-based models to simulate the ways that small changes in behavior at the individual level can add up to large-scale shifts at the level of the whole population, giving what is often referred to as “emergent phenomena.” These models have the potential to help us identify vulnerabilities to environmental stress and opportunities to promote sustainable adaptations.

My past research has included nonlinear dynamics and chaos, quantum optics, stratospheric photochemistry, electrocardiology, physical mechanisms of laser surgery, laser processing and analysis of semiconductors, laser-cooling of atomic ions, and high-precision atomic and molecular spectroscopy.

Current Research

Installing a weather station on an island in southwestern Bangladesh

I am currently pursuing research in four areas:

The Big Picture

All of my research interests relate to the question of how to society can manage environmental hazards within the context of democratic governance and significant scientific uncertainty.

For most important anthropogenic (human-caused) environmental hazards there is significant scientific uncertainty about the nature and severity of the consequences and this uncertainty makes many of the standard approaches to risk management ineffective. For instance, while it is unambiguous that human production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is changing earth’s climate, scientists cannot predict with great certainty what the exact consequences of this climate change will be. Our scientific understanding of the effects of trace quantities of toxic pollutants in the environment is even less certain.

Environmental change, such as global warming, does not impose itself on passive landscapes or communities. Its impacts, both on physical landscapes and on the lives of the people who inhabit them, depends both on the physical environment and on the way people live in it. From heavily developed US coasts to rural areas of coastal Bangladesh land-use and engineering have dramatically affected the transport of sediment and water and these changes can have as great an impact on the coast as the sea level rise we anticipate due to global climate change, and different economic, political, and social conditions in communities on the coast will affect the impact of the changing landscape.

When natural hazards, such as floods, cyclones, or droughts, strike some communities show great resilience and recover quickly while others are devastated and slow to recover. My projects explore the coupling between human activity and the environment to understand why we see such differences in vulnerability and resilience and to identify possible ways for communities to become more robust in the face of environmental stress.

Managing both human activities that change the environment and adaptation by communities to environmental change requires not just technological and technocratic measures, such as flood-control infrastructure, renewable energy technology, and economically efficient regulatory policies, but also requires political legitimacy: both in the US (the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and tradable permit regulations of greenhouse gas emissions) and in Bangladesh (the 1990 Flood Action Plan), environmental risk measures designed by top engineers have been rejected because they failed to win the trust and approval of the communities for which they were designed.

We also see numerous sites around Bangladesh of successful responses to environmental threats and stresses require integrating social and behavioral science

What Students Do


Students working with me are engaged in a variety of projects to combine knowledge about the physical environment and social, political, and economic conditions. This can include analysis of remote-sensing imagery from satellites, working with GIS databases, developing agent-based models, and conducting spatiotemporal statistical analysis.

Students write and publish papers, often as first-author, in scientific journals and present research results at national and international conferences.

Some recent student scholarship by students working with me (indicated in boldface):

datafsm: Estimating Finite-State Machine Models from Data” by John J. Nay and Jonathan M. Gilligan. Software package. Comprehensive R Archive Network.

Data-Driven Dynamic Decision Models” by John J. Nay and Jonathan M. Gilligan, proceedings of the 2015 Winter Simulation Conference, (in press, 2015).

Exploring water indices and associated parameters: a case study approach,” by Thushara Gunda, Laura Benneyworth, and Emily K. Burchfield, Water Policy 17, 98-111 (2015).

A review of decision-support models for adaptation to climate change in the context of development,” by John J. Nay, Mark Abkowitz, Eric Chu, Daniel Gallagher, and Helena Wright, Climate and Development 6, 367-367 (2014).

“The influence of seasonal forecast accuracy on farmer behavior: An agent-based approach,” by John H. Jacobi, John Nay, and Jonathan M. Gilligan, American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2013, Abstract #H34F-07

“What does access to safe drinking water mean in coastal Southwestern Bangladesh?” by Laura Benneyworth, AWRA Annual Water Resources Conference, 2013.

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