2016 Science in Society Journalism Award winners announced

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We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 Science in Society Journalism Awards, sponsored by the National Association of Science Writers:

Winners in each category receive a cash prize of $2,500, to be awarded at a reception on Oct. 29, 2016, at the ScienceWriters2016 meeting in San Antonio, Tex. In the book category, the judges also awarded an honorable mention to Adam Benforado for his book, Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice, published by Crown Publishers.

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.

In his book, Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry, Andrew Nikiforuk tells the story of Jessica Ernst’s stand against the energy company Encana Corporation, after it began secretly using hydraulic fracturing to tap hundreds of gas wells around her home. When she put forward evidence that Encana had violated laws by fracturing the community's drinking water aquifer, Ernst was falsely tagged as a bomb-making terrorist and visited by the Canadian government’s anti-terrorism squad. Ernst persisted to uncover a history of liability, fraud, and intimidation, along with a willful denial of widespread groundwater contamination. The judges said, “Here’s an excellent book with a strong protagonist who carries the narrative and turns a potentially wonky and bureaucratic matter into a page-turner. The author is facile with the science, and also with the story telling.” They added, “We found it a compelling read with clear, crisp writing. We were struck not just with the main character’s amazing persistence in pursuing justice against all odds, but also the author’s persistence as he nailed down the details. We came away inspired.”

“How the Fight Against Ebola Tested a Culture’s Traditions” was published online Jan. 30, 2015, by National Geographic. In the article, Maxmen recounts how anthropologists worked with aid workers and residents in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to reconcile management of the patients and victims in the Ebola crisis with the culture’s customs and religious beliefs. A prime example was funeral rituals that involved intimate contact with the body, which presented a high risk of disease transmission. The judges commented, “Maxmen unpacks the complexity in a gripping story about how burial traditions clashed with public health concerns and practices.” They commended Maxmen for her “beautiful on-location reporting about an extremely sensitive and challenging topic, digging beneath the straightforward medical explanations and rationales to show how cultural mores can play a key role in spreading (or stopping) a disease. In so doing, she exposes some rarely explored implications of a disease outbreak. As the piece illustrates, an outbreak not only takes lives and causes immense suffering in a community, but threatens to tear its very cultural fabric as well.”

“Bees, Inc.” was published in the January/February 2015 issue of Pacific Standard. In the article, Dzieza explores the vast commercial pollination industry and how beekeepers manage their honeybee colonies in the face of economic challenges, habitat destruction, devastating colony collapse and parasitic Varoa mites. The judges called the article “a satisfying and complex read, a real model of excellence for science writing. The prose was powerful, meticulously organized, beautifully written, an engaging and intriguing read from top to bottom.” They added, “We were very impressed by the deeper look at the widely covered bee colony collapse. The article flips assumptions and brings the issue into a greater discussion. The conclusion — that humans have done so much damage we must now be the custodians of this species — is a microcosm of the broader environmental crisis unfolding on our planet.”

“Leaving the Sea: Staten Islanders Experiment with Managed Retreat” was published Feb. 11, 2015, in the online Urban Omnibus. In the article, Rush covers the debate in Staten Island communities over whether to stay put or retreat from the shoreline, in the face of sea-level rise and stronger storms arising from climate change. She explores the costs and benefits of the strategy of “managed retreat,” whereby homeowner buyouts address the realities of climate change in vulnerable coastal communities. The judges commented, “Truly local reporting is crucial not just during natural disasters, when the national media may be present, but during the long, often painful and messy aftermath. That's when decisions are made, too often without scrutiny, that can shape the nature of a town and the fates of its residents for generations to come. In her article, Rush follows one such set of decisions, made after Hurricane Sandy's floodwaters receded. She does so with tenacity, commitment, and empathy. Her richly reported feature sheds light on the tough choices and many policy and administrative complexities impacting one flooded neighborhood. In so doing, the piece provides a clarifying look at unresolved facets of local-scale resilience and recovery that small communities around the world are likely to encounter as the impacts of climate change intensify in the coming years.”

“Handle with Care” was published in the May/June 2015 issue of Orion Magazine. In her commentary, Marris explores the issue of how deeply humans should intrude on nature to preserve it. As an example, she uses the efforts by botanists and volunteers to counter the threat of fungus and bark beetles to the whitebark pine, by planting fungus-resistant seedlings in wilderness areas of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park. The judges called Marris’s commentary “a beautifully-written, personal and thought-provoking window on our complex relationship with nature.” They wrote, “The piece argues that our impact on the natural world — increasingly, on nearly every facet of the natural world — shouldn’t compel us to retreat from its ecosystems, designating them sacrosanct. In fact, she calls for quite the opposite. Marris — reporting from the base of a ghostly, endangered tree on the edge of an ancient crater — argues that we need to embrace our duty to intervene using the technologies at our disposal, to save species to the extent possible. Whether readers agree or not, Marris's musings offer not only evocative imagery, but plenty of food for thought.”

The final judging committee consisted of Thomas Hayden (Stanford University), Martha Mendoza (Associated Press), and Gene Russo (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). The Science in Society awards committee was co-chaired by Amber Dance (freelance) and Dennis Meredith (freelance).

In addition to the final committee, NASW thanks the volunteers who served on the preliminary committees: Tom Abate (Stanford Engineering), Eric Bender (freelance), Michele D. Baum (University of Pittsburgh), Siri Carpenter (freelance and The Open Notebook), Rachel Courtland (IEEE Spectrum), Laura DeFrancesco (Nature Biotechnology), Earle Holland (freelance), Alla Katsnelson (freelance), Lucas Laursen (freelance), Carrie Peyton-Dahlberg (freelance), Kathleen Raven (freelance), Barbra Rodriguez (Vital Lifepath, communications consulting), William G. Schulz (The InTowner), John Uhlrich (Wiley-VCH), Cheryl Platzman Weinstock (freelance), and Sarah Witman (freelance).

Entries for next year's competition, for material published or broadcast in 2016, are due Feb. 1, 2017. Entry forms will be available on the NASW awards page in December 2016.

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 2,482 members include science writers and editors, public information officers, and science-writing educators and students.

For questions or more information visit the NASW web site or email director@nasw.org.