From awarding its first competitive prize in a field of just 137 U.S. newspaper entries, to this year’s 75th-anniversary contest that may draw as many as a thousand entries from around the world, the program now known as the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards has kept pace with a dramatically changing media landscape while continuing to promote superior science journalism.
“I don’t know of another journalism award that has played the same role in setting and maintaining an international standard of excellence.” said Robert Lee Hotz of The Wall Street Journal, who is a three-time winner and a member of the Managing Committee for the awards.
Today, in a political environment that has been damaging to journalism, the awards perform a crucial function, said Laura Helmuth, health, science, and environment editor for The Washington Post. “The most important value they uphold is truth—of real information in a world of misinformation, of verifiable facts in an age of people falsely calling truth ‘fake news,’” said Helmuth, who has been a long-time judge for the contest. “Science and journalism are both based in honesty and transparency,” she said, “and using journalism to interrogate science is a powerful combination that lets readers know how the world works.”
Established in 1945, the awards were the idea of Robert D. Potter, who was the president of the National Association of Science Writers. Through an associate, Potter secured the sponsorship of the Westinghouse Educational Foundation and helped arrange for the American Association for the Advancement of Science to independently administer the awards. In its inaugural year, the program presented citations to 13 prominent reporters who had been pioneers in U.S. science journalism. The first competitive award, selected among 137 entries in 1946, went to James G. Chesnutt of The San Francisco Call-Bulletin.
Special activities to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the awards will be held 14 to 15 February at the AAAS Annual Meeting, which is taking place this year at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. The Kavli Foundation luncheon and media roundtable at noon on 14 February, showcasing the work of the current award winners and the anniversary of the awards, will be hosted by Hotz. That evening, at 7 to 10 p.m., the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards reception and ceremony will be held at the Pacific Science Center and will be hosted by Alan Boyle of GeekWire. A wine-and-cheese reception in honor of the 75th anniversary—open to general attendees of the Annual Meeting as well as its Newsroom registrants—will be held the next day, 15 February, at 4 to 5 p.m.
Launched at the dawn of the atomic age, a key goal of the awards program in its early years was to encourage closer cooperation between reporters and scientists in explaining dramatic new advances in science and engineering to the public.
The first judges for the contest were not only journalists but also politicians and academics, and the awards program actually had a goal—in addition to promoting broader public understanding of science—of fostering the relationships of science writers and their sources. James B. Conant, president of AAAS in 1946 (and also president of Harvard University) noted at the time that “the purpose of the [George Westinghouse Science Writing] awards is to assist in developing closer cooperation between news writers and scientists.”
“The ties between the reporters and those they covered were pretty chummy in the early days, when the awards were very much aimed at describing science as an emerging force in American life,” said Earl Lane, executive director of the awards. “Over the years, the approach became more probing,” he said. “The judging panels are now composed exclusively of science journalists, and the winning entries often describe not only the underlying science but also its impact on society.”
Among the early judges were some big names: critic H.L. Mencken (1947–1948), Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins (1949–1951) and Esquire Editor Harold Hayes (1963). Dixy Lee Ray was recruited to judge in 1972, one year before she was appointed chair of the United States Atomic Energy Commission by President Nixon, but she was a no-show. Astronomer Carl Sagan was also a no-show, after being recruited to judge in 1976.
By that year, the program had expanded to include not only newspapers but also magazines, which had been added early on, in 1947. Radio and television debuted in 1981. In 2001, the dramatic shift to a digital format that was starting to overtake journalism was reflected in a new online award category.
“The platforms for disseminating good science journalism have changed over the years, and the awards have adapted to those changes,” said NPR’s Joe Palca, who has said of the award he won in 1997, “It was the award you most wanted to win if you considered yourself a serious science journalist.”
Many of the best-known names in science journalism have won the awards—among them Natalie Angier, Deborah Blum, Ira Flatow, Atul Gawande, and Elizabeth Kolbert. Some of the winners were just starting careers and went on to further success in science journalism after having been honored with the AAAS Kavli award.
“I didn’t think I was doing science writing,” said Hotz, referring in a 2018 interview to the work that won him his first award in 1977. “I was just doing the daily news. [The award] was a bolt from the blue, and it was a moment of discovery.”
In 2009, the Kavli Foundation granted the awards program a $2 million endowment, assuring its long-term future, and the awards were renamed the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. The foundation doubled its endowment in 2015, allowing the program to go global and accept entries from journalists around the world. It also expanded the program to include two awards in each of the contest’s eight categories. The current categories are Large Newspaper, Small Newspaper, Magazine, Video Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less), Video In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes), Audio, Online, and Children’s Science News.
In the first year of the international contest, 1,158 entries arrived from 44 countries, which was almost twice as many entries as the year before. The program handled the deluge by recruiting senior science journalists who had been AAAS Kavli award judges or members of the Managing Committee to help screen the many entries before passing them on to the Washington-area scientists who volunteer to screen the submissions for scientific accuracy. The program also recruited international judges from The Guardian, Nature, and the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur to join the judging panels.
“At that time,” said Hotz, “the award went from a signature national award to one that celebrates the best science journalism of the entire globe. It was transformative, and really opened up the influence of the award.”
There have been multiple winners recently from the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France. There also have been winners from China, Australia, South Africa, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Ireland. There were 1,116 entries from 47 countries for the 2019 contest.
Through it all, the AAAS Kavli awards continue to promote the value of both science reporting and science itself. As Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt, co-executive producers of NOVA — a frequent winner of the award — put it: “In an age when reporting and expertise are the target of ideological attack, the recognition offered by the awards highlights the importance of evidence-based storytelling. The awards help to promote scientific inquiry as a critically important activity in our society.”
This story first appeared in Science magazine's 31 January 2020 AAAS News & Notes section.