Stories on the stressful impact of urban violence on children, the shared aptitudes of humans and songbirds for vocal learning, and the impact of climate change on the forests of Minnesota and beyond, are among the winners of the 2015 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
For the first time in the 70-year history of the program, entries were accepted from journalists around the globe in all award categories. The expansion was made possible by a generous doubling of the program endowment by The Kavli Foundation, which established the endowment in 2009. The new funds also permitted two awards in each of the eight categories for the first time — a Gold Award ($5,000) and a Silver Award ($3,500).
Just under 40% of the winners were international entries, comparable to the percentage of international entries received.
The awards, administered by AAAS since their inception in 1945, go to professional journalists for distinguished reporting for a general audience. Independent panels of science journalists pick the winners, who will receive their awards at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in February.
Among the winners were journalists who contributed to national outlets such as The New York Times, the PBS NewsHour, BBC and Le Monde, who did exemplary regional reporting for The Baltimore Sun, the Lansing State Journal in Michigan, Idaho Public Broadcasting, Minnesota Public Radio, and Seattle's KCTS 9 TV, and who wrote fine in-depth pieces for Nautilus and Backchannel.
Andrea K. McDaniels of The Baltimore Sun won the Gold Award in the large newspaper category for her three-part "Collateral Damage" series which told what researchers have been learning about the impact of traumatic stress on children's health and the development of the young brain. Even as shootings, stabbings, and murder trials grab the spotlight, McDaniels wrote, violence in Baltimore "is exacting another insidious, often invisible, toll — warping the health and development of the city's youngest residents."
Rami Tzabar and Angela Saini of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) won the Gold Award for radio reporting by exploring how animal models of vocal communication may be useful in understanding how human language might have evolved. "Just like the birdsongs they report on, the BBC team produced a program that is both a delight to the ears and elegantly structured," said Seth Borenstein, a science reporter for the Associated Press, who helped judge the competition.
Dan Kraker and Elizabeth Dunbar of Minnesota Public Radio, winners of the Silver Award in the radio category, described the current and likely effects of climate change in their home state, particularly on the changing makeup of the northern forests.
The Gold Award for in-depth television reporting went to another BBC team for a documentary that used clever analogies and appealing graphics to discuss three key numbers that help clarify important questions about the scale and pace of human influence on climate. The program featured a trio of mathematicians who use numbers to reveal patterns in data, assess risk, and help predict the future.
"The new global era for the AAAS Kavli awards is off to a great start," said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. "The breadth of the winning work and the diversity of outlets in which it appeared demonstrate the vitality of science journalism at a time when public understanding of science is more important than ever. I expect the awards will prove to mean as much for international science writers as they have over the years for science writers in the United States."
Large Newspaper — Circulation of 150,000 or more
Andrea K. McDaniels
Andrea K. McDaniels
The Baltimore Sun
"Collateral Damage" series —
City's violence can take hidden toll"
14 Dec. 2014
"Some wounded wind up at home"
18 Dec. 2014
21 Dec. 2014
For more than a year, Andrea McDaniels examined the unseen impact of violence on children, caregivers and victims' relatives in the Baltimore area. Elevated levels of stress hormones can reach toxic levels, researchers say, and that can have a lifetime effect on health. "For every child who is shot, provoking public outrage," McDaniels wrote, hundreds more hear gunshots or see fights that can leave deep psychological wounds and can trigger physical ailments. "The children and families I chronicle in 'Collateral Damage' have long suffered from the health problems of living in violent neighborhoods," McDaniels said upon learning she had won the award. "It is the science that has brought validity to the issue and made people pay more attention. I only hope that my work helped to expose the problem even more and will prompt more resources for the communities that need it most." Dan Vergano, a science reporter for BuzzFeed, called the Gold Award series "a distinctive and heartbreaking look at the science behind the toll that violence takes on society's most vulnerable."
"Stéthoscope, Il n'a plus le monopole du coeur" (The stethoscope no longer holds a monopoly over our hearts)
26 Nov. 2014 (Translation)
"Anguilles, Sept mille lieues sous les mers" (Eels, 7000 leagues under the sea)
17 Dec. 2014 (Translation)
"La souris, Reine contestée des labos" (The mouse, challenged queen of the lab)
18 Feb. 2015 (Translation)
In three well-crafted stories, Nathaniel Herzberg of Le Monde told his readers about the decline of the stethoscope as the undisputed symbol of the working physician; the efforts of scientists since the time of the ancient Greeks to understand the migration and metamorphoses of the European eel that crosses the Atlantic twice during its life cycle; and the diminished allure of mice as experimental subjects for the study of human diseases. Tim Radford, former science editor of The Guardian, called the Silver Award winner's work "a triptych of elegant studies in essay form." Regarding the piece on the stethoscope, he noted: "Who knew how much history lay in that iconic length of tubing?" Christina Horsten, a correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, said Herzberg produced "three beautiful pieces based on solid research." Herzberg said his stories dealt "with obviousness that is not obvious…the stethoscope as the eternal symbol of doctors, mice as our best animal model, eels as simple, almost boring, river fishes. Going behind these evident facts was a great adventure."
Lansing State Journal
"Battle of the Ash Borer"
27 July 2014
The emerald ash borer, an insect that has laid waste to more than 100 million ash trees from New Jersey to Colorado, has wiped out virtually every ash tree in southeast Michigan. In much of the rest of the state's Lower Peninsula, there are few trees left to save. In a detailed look at the local impact of the pest, Matthew Miller described efforts by researchers to identify the borer and slow the devastation, including the use of tiny stingless wasps that prey on the borer's eggs and larvae. They also are exploring ways to cross North American ash trees with resistant trees from China, the borer's native range. In his tale on the history of the ash borer, Miller touched on the work of the 19th century French priest and naturalist Armand David and even the impact of China's Cultural Revolution on the work of Chinese experts on the borer. While scientists have lost almost every battle so far against the borer, Miller says, "They may yet win the war." Vergano said that "Miller digs into the story with the persistence of the ash borer itself." Miller noted: "The ash borer piece was supposed to be about a single journal article. I kept reporting because I was fascinated by the scientific detective work that had gone into fighting the borer and by the striking changes it had left in its wake."
Helga Rietz wrote an engaging story on efforts by Matthias Echternach — who is both a trained singer and a medical doctor — to study the physiology of the singing voice. Using high-speed cameras, endoscopes, custom-made masks to measure pressure and airflow in the throat, and magnetic resonance imaging, Echternach is looking for the physical attributes of a dramatic operatic voice, including that of soprano Renate Behle, one of his test subjects. There are as many questions as answers, Rietz notes, including the mystery of exactly how a singer controls the tiny oscillations in pitch that produce vibrato. Horsten called Rietz's story "refreshing, unique, entertaining, and instructive at the same time." Adds Radford: "This is what good science reporting should do, which is take you somewhere you'd never even thought of going." For Rietz, the story "connected my lifelong passions for both science and music."
Alexandra Witze introduced her readers to the seismologists who work around the clock to pinpoint major earthquakes around the globe; to a brother and sister who have spent their lives studying Pluto; and to scientists and engineers involved in the removal of two dams on the Elwha River in Washington's Olympic Penninsula and the restoration of the environment behind the dams. The judges praised Witze's command of diverse topics, each story illuminated through on-the-scene reporting. Vergano called her work "sterling reporting that opens windows on the people behind the science of our world and worlds beyond." Robert Lee Hotz, science reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said Witze's work "demonstrates her breadth as a beat reporter." Witze noted that one of her stories "allowed me to explore the rich history of Pluto exploration in advance of the historic New Horizons mission flyby — with the added twist of a brother/sister pair of researchers, each of whom played leading roles in uncovering the secrets of Pluto."
"The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic"
Amanda Gefter described the fascinating life of Walter Pitts, who was bullied as a child in Detroit and took refuge in the local library where he taught himself Greek, Latin, logic, and mathematics. He ran away from home at age 15, became a pioneer in neuroscience and cybernetics at MIT, and later became a withdrawn alcoholic. Pitts worked with Warren McCulloch, who was born at the other end of the economic spectrum in a family of privilege. "McCulloch and Pitts were destined to live, work, and die together," Gefter writes. "Along the way, they would create the first mechanistic theory of the mind, the first computational approach to neuroscience, the logical design of modern computers, and the pillars of artificial intelligence." The story is about more than a research collaboration, she writes: "It is also about the bonds of friendship, the fragility of the mind, and the limits of logic's ability to redeem a messy and imperfect world." Gefter said she felt "incredibly lucky to tell this extraordinary story."
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
KCTS 9 (Seattle)
"Is Alaska Safe for Sea Stars?"
8 Oct. 2014
With a deadly wasting disease killing West Coast starfish by the millions, Katie Campbell's story took views to Alaska where researchers are trying to determine whether starfish in colder waters might escape the die-off. "This piece was about far more than starfish," said judge David Baron, former science editor for PRI's "The World." "By showing how biologists painstakingly collect data to understand the natural world, the story beautifully demonstrates what it means to be a scientist." The judges praised the Gold Award winner as an excellent example of strong, local science reporting. "Being recognized by AAAS and Kavli is an incredible honor," Campbell said. "I'm ecstatic to be included among this elite group of science journalists. This award also brings well-earned recognition to the important work being done by researchers on the front lines of the massive sea star wasting epidemic."
"Will a robotic arm ever have the full functionality of a human limb?"
12 Feb. 2015
"Can modern prosthetics actually help reclaim the sense of touch?"
13 Feb. 2015
In a two-part series, PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O'Brien — whose left arm was amputated in 2014 after an unlikely accident while he was on a reporting assignment in Japan — discussed the status of prosthetics development and the challenges in developing a fully functional human limb. Judge Eliene Augenbraun, senior video producer for Scientific American, said O'Brien's reporting was a "refreshingly skeptical look" at what it will take to make advanced prosthetics widely available. She found O'Brien "completely lacking in self-pity" during his reporting, and added: "I was very moved when his rather dry affect cracked and he smiled at controlling the prosthetic hand." O'Brien noted the unusual circumstances that led to his winning work. "Most of the time you have to go out looking for a story, but every now and then one lands right in your lap," he said. "And so it went for me after the amputation of my left arm. To say it made me look at prosthetic and robotic technology in a new light would be an understatement. It's a great honor to be recognized for this work at the intersection of my personal life and my professional interest."
The BBC team used clever analogies and appealing graphics to discuss three key numbers that help clarify important questions about climate change: 0.85 degrees Celsius — how much the Earth has warmed since the 1880s; 95% — how sure scientists are that human activity is the major cause of Earth's recent warming; and one trillion tons — the best estimate of the amount of carbon that can be burned before risking dangerous climate change. Three mathematicians discuss such topics as the moon landing, early 20th century cotton mills, and motor racing to help illuminate the methods used in climate change analysis. Judge Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer, called the program "a master class in how to make a forbidding statistical story both enlightening and entertaining." Jonathan Renouf, executive producer at BBC Science, said: "We set out to make a film with three objectives; to say something new about climate change, to stay true to the science, and to attract an audience to what is unquestionably a demanding subject. Winning this award feels like a vindication for that approach."
Pernille Rose Grønkjær
Danish journalist Lone Frank and director Pernille Rose Grønkjær took viewers on a deeply personal journey of discovery as Frank explored current research on the genetic factors at play in personality development. "Genes and environment can never be seen as isolated from each other," Frank says. "They're engaged in an eternal exchange." Baron called the documentary "one of the most original pieces of TV science journalism I have ever seen." Richard Hudson, director of science production for Twin Cities Public Television, called it a memorable film in which Frank "leverages her reflections on her own life and personality to amplify the discoveries and insights of the articulate experts." According to Frank, "Our goal with 'Genetic Me' was to combine frontier science with cinematic film making in order to touch and engage a broader audience." She called the award "a tremendously valuable recognition of our project."
Rami Tzabar and Angela Saini
BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service
"What the Songbird Said"
11 May 2015
Vocal learning — the ability to learn and imitate sounds — is a trait humans share with only a few other species, most notably, songbirds. Charles Darwin noticed this similarity as far back as 1871 and researchers recently have been finding many similarities in the way humans and songbirds perceive and process speech and song. The AP's Borenstein called the report "a fascinating peek into language, biology, and maybe ourselves." Tina Hesman Saey of Science News called it "one grammar lesson you won't want to miss." Rami Tzabar said the program "was inspired by a chance meeting with one of the contributors, the MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa, who talked about using animal behavior as a way of understanding the evolution of human language. And of course, birdsong and primate calls make wonderful radio material."
Dan Kraker and Elizabeth Dunbar
Minnesota Public Radio
"Climate change in Minnesota: More heat, more big storms"
2 Feb. 2015
"A forest dilemma: What will grow in a changing climate?"
3 Feb. 2015
"As state warms, a few spots keep their cool"
3 Feb. 2015
Dan Kraker and Elizabeth Dunbar noted the changes already occurring in Minnesota's climate, with warmer temperatures on average, especially in winter, and bigger downpours of rain. Red maple trees, which tolerate warmer temperatures, are moving northward. Cold-tolerant pine trees are dying out. While managers of Minnesota's forests know their world is changing, they disagree on how urgently new species should be introduced and how far they should be moved. Saey said the series is "not just a 'woe is me' summary of the bad news on climate change, but a clear-eyed look at how conservationists are preparing for the reality of altered climate while still maintaining biological diversity and saving jobs." Describing climate change as one of the most important issues of our time, Kraker and Dunbar said, "We wanted our audience to better understand how it's already changing places they know and love, and how people are already adapting to those changes. It's truly an honor to be recognized for that effort."
"How a Lone Hacker Shredded the Myth of Crowdsourcing"
9 Feb. 2015
Crowdsourcing, which exploits the collective intelligence of thousands of people to tackle big problems, has become popular in business, political, and academic circles. But Mark Harris described how a hacker and a friend infiltrated a DARPA-sponsored "Shredder Challenge" and created havoc. Participants in the challenge had to piece together 6,000 chads from documents that had been put through high-end shredding machines. Some of the teams used sophisticated computer algorithms to help match images of the chads that had been posted online. But the hackers managed to scatter pieces that had been matched, pile chads on top of each other, demoralize users, and drive hundreds of participants away. The researchers concluded that the hacking raised doubts about using "crowdsourced problem solving for sensitive tasks involving financial markets and national security." Science writer Paul Raeburn said Harris produced "a gripping, solidly reported account" that undercut blind faith in the wisdom of the crowd. Intrigued by a scientist's online comment regarding the DARPA Challenge, Harris started digging deeper into the program. "The more I explored it," he said, "the more this pacey tale of high-tech hackers turned into a critique of crowdsourcing itself."
Kevin Sack, Sheri Fink, Pam Belluck and Adam Nossiter, with Daniel Berehulak, Dan Edge (for Frontline), and The New York Times graphics team
The New York Times
"How Ebola Roared Back"
29 Dec. 2014
A team of New York Times reporters described how, for a fleeting moment in the spring of 2014, the Ebola epidemic that subsequently swept through West Africa might have been stopped. The reporters discovered that World Health Organization and Guinean health authorities had documented that a handful of people in Sierra Leone had recently been sick or died with Ebola-like symptoms. But information about two of the infections never reached a team investigating suspected cases in Sierra Leone. That country's first confirmed Ebola cases were later linked to those two cases, which also were linked to a vast second-wave outbreak of the disease in Liberia. The Times team reviewed internal documents and talked to a wide range of health officials and infectious disease experts who admitted they had made misjudgments and had been over-confident. Health workers pulled out of Liberia and scaled back too soon in Guinea, didn't keep good track of people crisscrossing borders, and dealt ineffectively with cultural beliefs and suspicions of Western aid workers. The Times team "made the most of on-the-scene reporting during the epidemic, explaining how it spread and how a too-little-too-late response from world health leaders led to needless suffering and death," said judge Nancy Shute, a health reporter for NPR. Celia Dugger, science editor of the Times said: "Ebola was a monumental epidemiological, medical, and sociological challenge for the world, so it's a particular thrill to be honored for the excellence of our science journalism."
Science News for Students (online site)
"Where will lightning strike?"
16 Sept. 2014
Stephen Ornes told his youthful readers about the natural events that unfold in clouds to produce the visible bolts and roaring thunder that produce one of nature's most dazzling displays — and also one of its most dangerous. Starting with a harrowing story about hikers caught in a thunderstorm atop a mountain in California's Sequoia National Park, Ornes describes what scientists have learned about the behavior of lightning and what they are still struggling to understand. That includes exactly how a bolt is triggered and how to predict where it might connect with the ground. The judges praised Ornes for his comprehensive review of lightning research. Claudia Wallis, managing editor of Scientific American MIND, called the story "a very engaging explanation of lightning, with great use of a dramatic anecdote." Ornes said he loves to write about science for children "not only because of the subject matter and style but also because it makes me a better dad. I no longer linger at the playground when a storm moves in, and I can finally explain in straightforward terms why hanging out in a thunderstorm is a terrible idea."
Idaho Public Television
"Science Trek: Bats - White Nose Syndrome"
16 Sept. 2014
Joan Cartan-Hansen showed scientists at work in an underground chamber at an old power plant in Idaho, swabbing the forearms and noses of hibernating bats in search of evidence for a deadly fungus that has been killing millions of bats across the nation. Cartan-Hansen described the importance of the research in determining whether the outbreak of white nose syndrome had reached southwestern Idaho (there was no evidence of it in the power plant building), and she noted that humans can spread the disease by transporting the fungus on their shoes and clothing from caves harboring infected bats. The video segment was accompanied by a wealth of online information about bats, including interactive games. Judge Paul Basken of The Chronicle for Higher Education said Cartan-Hansen's piece provides "a close-up look at what some scientists really do in their jobs, even if a little icky and scary." Cartan-Hansen said she shares the honor with her colleagues on the "Science Trek" team. She added, "Research shows that by the time students reach fourth grade, a third of boys and girls have lost an interest in science. I believe it is essential to give students, educators, and parents the tools they need to capture and engage young students' interest in the world around them."
American Association for the Advancement of Science
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science (www.sciencemag.org) as well as Science Translational Medicine (www.sciencetranslationalmedicine.org), Science Signaling (www.sciencesignaling.org), and a digital, open-access journal, Science Advances ( www.scienceadvances.org). AAAS was founded in 1848 and includes nearly 250 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all, with a mission to "advance science and serve society."
The Kavli Foundation
The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work. The Foundation's mission is implemented through an international program of research institutes in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics, and through the support of conferences, symposia, endowed professorships, and other activities, including the Kavli Science Journalism Workshops at the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT. The Foundation is also a founding partner of the biennial Kavli Prizes, which recognize scientists for their seminal advances in three research areas: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.