2015 Science in Society Journalism Award winners

September 09, 2015

Science in Society Awards logo
We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2015 Science in Society Journalism Awards, sponsored by the National Association of Science Writers:

  • In the Book category, Judy Foreman for her book A Nation in Pain: Healing Our Biggest Health Problem, published by Oxford University Press
  • In the Science Reporting category, "Why Nothing Works," by Erik Vance, published in Discover magazine
  • In the Longform category, "Big Oil, Bad Air," by Lisa Song, David Hasemyer, Jim Morris, Greg Gilderman, and more than a dozen other colleagues, published online in InsideClimate News
  • In the Science Reporting for a Local or Regional Market category, "Battle of the Ash Borer," by Matthew Miller, published in the Lansing State Journal

No award was given in the Commentary and Opinion category.

Winners in each category receive a cash prize of $2,500, to be awarded at a reception on October 10, 2015, at the ScienceWriters2015 meeting taking place this year in Cambridge, Mass.

NASW established the Science in Society awards to provide recognition — without subsidy from any professional or commercial interest — for investigative or interpretive reporting about the sciences and their impact on society. The awards are intended to encourage critical, probing work that would not receive an award from an interest group. Beginning with the first award in 1972, NASW has highlighted innovative reporting that goes well beyond the research findings and considers the associated ethical problems and social effects. The awards are especially prestigious because they are judged by accomplished peers.

NASW currently awards prizes in five categories: Books, Science Reporting, Longform Science Reporting, Science Reporting for a Local or Regional Market, and Commentary and Opinion.

A Nation in Pain was published in partnership with the International Association for the Study of Pain. In the book, Judy Foreman explores a crisis in the U.S. in which 100 million adults live with chronic pain. Drawing on both her personal experience with chronic pain and her background as a health journalist, Foreman guides the reader through recent scientific discoveries about genetic susceptibility to pain; gender disparities in pain conditions and treatments; the problem of undertreated pain in children; the emerging role of the immune system in pain; advances in traditional treatments such as surgery and drugs; and the effectiveness of alternative remedies, including marijuana, acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic care. Foreman also addresses the findings that exercise can improve pain, and explores the destructive "opioid wars," which have led to a misguided demonization of prescription painkillers. The judges called the book "an excellent exploration of a major public health issue that still is not being seriously addressed by the medical community." They said that "In a crosscutting way, Foreman provides a personal and public pain roadmap, skillfully guiding readers through the biology of pain, how it affects different groups of people, and how to evaluate a broad range of treatments. She paces the science well for general readers, interspersing it with accounts of her own experience, as well as with accounts from her sources." The judges commented that "Chronic pain is difficult to control, but science is making progress. Yet, most medical schools devote little time to teaching new doctors about the most recent findings and treatments. In fact, she discovered that medical school faculties resist spending more time on teaching pain control, arguing it is not important enough to bump anything off the curriculum."

"Why Nothing Works" was published in the July/August 2014 issue of Discover. The article explores the evolving scientific understanding of the placebo effect, in which a sham treatment with no medical value nonetheless has significant clinical effects. Some practitioners dismiss the effects as irrelevant, and others blame such effects on neurosis. However, as the article explains, scientists are increasingly recognizing the placebo response as an authentic neurochemical reaction in the brain. The article also details how imaging studies have raised the possibility that the effect will soon be understood, perhaps even used in clinical practice. The judges commented that "It can be hard to explain the placebo effect and its Janus-like impact on medical research — including its contrary sibling, the nocebo effect. It confounds results of clinical trials yet also holds the potential to be harnessed as 'the brain's inner pharmacy,' as Vance so artfully put it." The judges said that Vance's "masterful command of metaphor and vivid anecdote knit an excellent tapestry of the science behind the placebo effect, the ethical issues it raises, and its implications for improved medical care."

"Big Oil, Bad Air" was published online on InsideClimate News on February 18, 2014. It was jointly reported by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel. The journalistic team conducted an eight-month investigation and analyzed records obtained from Texas regulatory agencies to discover the impact of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. Their investigation revealed a system that does more to protect the industry than the public. They found that fracking in the area endangered public health, while generating billions of dollars of revenue for oil companies. Among the findings were that air monitoring is woefully inadequate; thousands of oil and gas facilities are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state; lawbreaking companies are rarely fined; and the Texas legislature has severely cut the budget for environmental regulation. The judges said that the series was "an extraordinary accomplishment in team investigative science journalism targeted at a crucial energy, environment and health issue that extends well beyond the boundaries of Texas, the project's focus. The reporters set out to get to the bottom of a corrupt regulatory system involving the fracking boom. They found no bottom." The judges also called the article "a vivid example of the ferment in science journalism. Several new media outlets teamed to deliver the kind of broad-shouldered, crusading doggedness in exposing public malfeasance that once was the near-exclusive province of big metropolitan newspapers."

"Battle of the Ash Borer" was published July 27, 2014, in the Lansing State Journal. It tells of the environmental disaster wrought by the ash borer, a metallic green beetle that invaded from China and has wiped out virtually every ash tree in southeast Michigan. Since its arrival in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the beetle has laid waste to more than 100 million ash trees from Massachusetts to Colorado. Researchers estimate the annual damage caused by the insect at $1.6 billion including the loss of residential property values and timber. The article details the scientific research that led to the discovery of the beetle's infestation; that aimed at understanding the ash borer; and that seeks — thus far unsuccessfully — to thwart it. The judges called the article "a compellingly written environmental story important not only to people in Michigan but to a much wider swath of the U.S. as well. The writer began with a Michigan State University journal article and brought that report to life by attacking the subject like a Sherlock Holmes mystery," said the judges. "Often Miller served as Watson, at the scene as researchers were gathering evidence to find what he describes as 'the epicenter' of the invasion by the emerald ash borer, 'the most costly and destructive forest insect ever to gnaw its way across the North American continent.' It's an excellent example of narrative journalism enlisted to explain a serious problem and efforts to at least understand it, if not to bring it under control," said the judges.

Overall, the judges also commented that, "All of the winners have demonstrated the impact narrative journalism can have on science writing, from short form to books. Each was a great read. Each provided a compelling example of how narrative journalism can reach the general public on a variety of topics involving science and society."

The final judging committee consisted of Charlie Petit (freelance), Cristine Russell (freelance and Harvard Kennedy School and Pete Spotts (the Christian Science Monitor). The Science in Society awards committee was co-chaired by Amber Dance, a freelance journalist and staffer at Alzforum.org, and Dennis Meredith, a freelance science writer and communication consultant.

In addition to the final committee, NASW thanks the volunteers who served on the preliminary committees: Eric Bender (writer/editor), Rick Borchelt (U.S. Department of Energy), Marla Vacek Broadfoot (freelance), Siri Carpenter (freelance and The Open Notebook), Cally Carswell (freelance), Glennda Chui (SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory), Josh Fischman (Scientific American), Azeen Ghorayshi (BuzzFeed News), Earle Holland (freelance), Whitney L.J. Howell (freelance), Alla Katsnelson (freelance), Phil McKenna (freelance), David F. Salisbury (Vanderbilt University), Charles Seife (New York University), Cat Warren (North Carolina State University) and Cheryl Platzman Weinstock (freelance).

Entries for next year's competition, for material published or broadcast in 2015, are due February 1, 2016. Entry forms will be available at www.nasw.org in December 2015.

The largest organization devoted to the professional interests of science writers, the National Association of Science Writers fosters the dissemination of accurate information regarding science through all media normally devoted to informing the public. Its 2,525 members include science writers and editors, and science-writing educators and students.

For questions or more information visit www.nasw.org or write director@nasw.org.