Each summer, the American Association for the Advancement for Science places postgraduate, graduate and advanced undergraduate scientists in newsrooms across the United States, giving them the opportunity to work as journalists during a 10-week fellowship.
Over its 46-year history, the goal of the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship — to train young researchers in communicating complex science to the public while enhancing the breadth and depth of science-related coverage in mainstream media — has remained consistent. This summer’s fellows, however, differ from past groups in a number of ways.
With 28 scientists at 25 news organizations, the current set of fellows, who began their assignments this month, is the largest in the program’s history. Among the host sites is El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s most widely read newspaper and the commonwealth’s first media outlet to participate in the program.
This year’s fellows are also the first to work remotely, with social distancing guidelines and travel restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic preventing them from being physically present in their newsrooms. Though the lack of on-site work may be disappointing, the subjects currently dominating American news coverage, including the virus and protests against systemic racism, make this an especially vital time to work in science journalism, said AAAS staff, former fellows and host-site editors during the new fellows’ orientation June 3-5.
“You all are coming to this intersection of science and media at a time when it’s never been more important,” said AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh during his welcome address. “We are in a period where there’s just a confluence of events that are happening that really are pivot points in history. The sciences that are valuable to talk about might be the social sciences, the science around bias, the research around gun violence. These are difficult subjects. That experience is going to serve you well throughout your careers.”
“You are now part of the AAAS family of trying to advance science and serve society at the same time,” Parikh added. “I used to think that science was a refuge from the world. Unfortunately, there are no bubbles in this world. There are no places to hide out. We’re part of the communities in which we live. We have to own that and take leadership.”
Since its inaugural summer in 1975, when 10 scientists participated, the Mass Media Fellowship has built a network of approximately 750 alumni. Following the fellowship, some participants return to academia, putting their sharpened communication skills to use as researchers. Others build careers as journalists or public information officers.
The AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology hosts the program, with a handful of foundations, scientific societies and universities providing programmatic support and sponsoring individual fellows. This year’s fellows are working across the country at a diverse array of print, digital and radio news organizations. Outlets receiving a fellow for the first time include The Miami Herald, The Las Vegas Review-Journal and Science Friday, a public radio show syndicated by more than 400 stations nationwide.