Winners of the 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards
Consequential stories on important issues in medical research are among the winners of the 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards, including a Swedish documentary that raised disturbing questions about the research conduct of a surgeon at the famed Karolinska Institute, a series in a small weekly newspaper that challenged claims of a local breast cancer epidemic, and a report that researchers at leading U.S. medical institutions routinely disregarded a law on reporting of study results.
The awards program went global last year, thanks to a doubling of the endowment by The Kavli Foundation, and two awards were established in each of eight categories: a Gold Award ($5,000) and Silver Award ($3,500). There were entries this year from 54 countries – up from 44 last year – and the 2016 winners include journalists from China, Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
The science journalism awards have been administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since their inception in 1945. Independent panels of science journalists select the winners.
Bosse Lindquist and his colleagues at the Swedish public broadcaster, SVT, won the Gold Award for in-depth television reporting for a three-part documentary on Paolo Macchiarini, an Italian surgeon on the staff of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He had gained worldwide attention for his work on synthetic tracheas, or windpipes, for human transplantation. But the documentary showed how patients suffered and died in connection with failed operations, and it raised numerous issues concerning care and research ethics.
Lindquist found that Macchiarini failed to adequately inform his patients of the risks of the trachea procedure and had not done testing on animals before doing the procedure on humans. The SVT documentary, appearing after a Karolinska inquiry already had cleared Macchiarini of charges he misrepresented the success of his trachea implants, caused a sensation in Sweden. Macchiarini eventually was fired, the vice chancellor of the Institute stepped down, and new inquiries were launched.
Peter Byrne, a freelance investigative reporter, received the Gold Award in the small newspaper category for an 11-part series in the Point Reyes Light of Marin County, Calif., that cast doubt on claims of a breast cancer epidemic in the affluent county. He found that women in mostly white suburbs get more screening mammograms than women in lower-income communities. The increased screening also returns higher rates of false positives. Byrne said his reporting on data quality problems afflicting the federal and state cancer registries “needs to be taken seriously by the highest levels of state and national government and by the medical profession at large.”
Charles Piller and Natalia Bronshtein won the Gold Award in the online category for an investigation by Boston-based STAT that found researchers at leading universities and medical institutions had routinely failed to report their study results to the federal government’s ClinicalTrials.gov database, thereby depriving patients and doctors of readily available information that would help them better compare the effectiveness and side effects of treatments. The story helped spur the National Institutes of Health to step up its efforts to improve reporting of results to the database as required by law.
The Silver Award in the online category went to Christie Aschwanden of FiveThirtyEight for three pieces on the process of scientific research and the so-called “replication crisis.” Shankar Vedantam, a Silver Award winner in the audio category, also tackled the issue of reproducibility in scientific research in one of his “Hidden Brain” podcasts for NPR.
Among the winners were journalists who contributed to Nature, NRC Handelsblad in Amsterdam, Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich and the BBC in London.
“Enterprising reporting on the substance and process of research is at the heart of good science journalism,” said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “Many of the award winners this year have shown that solid reporting on science can both improve understanding and also trigger change.”
What had been the radio category was changed to audio this year after podcast entries were moved from the online category. The winners will receive their awards at a Feb. 17 ceremony held in conjunction with the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston.
The full list of winners of the 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards:
Large Newspaper—Circulation of 150,000 or more
Jop de Vrieze and Zvezdana Vukojevic
Freelancers, NRC Handelsblad (Amsterdam)
"Het is een prachtig kind. Waarom is hij overleden?" (It is a beautiful child. Why did he die?")
April 23, 2016 (Translation)
In a heartbreaking story about the stillbirth of their son, Mikki, journalists Jop de Vrieze and Zvezdana Vukojevic searched for answers within the Dutch system of prenatal care that might have helped prevent their son’s death. They delved into scientific articles, medical guidelines, policy documents, parliamentary papers and internal documents, and spoke to more than 30 sources. Infant mortality has been a topic of considerable discussion in The Netherlands since a 2003 study found the nation’s infant mortality rate was among the highest in the European Union. Midwives have an autonomous position and are the standard health care professionals for low-risk pregnancies in the Netherlands. Due to the high mortality rate, midwives were forced to establish more regular consultations with gynecologists. The number of stillbirths decreased from 7.7 per thousand in 2000 to 5.3 per thousand by 2013, but a specialist at the University of Groningen said a fifth of stillbirths in the country are still avoidable. Mikki likely suffered from intrauterine growth restriction, with a placenta too small to keep providing him energy during his growth. De Vrieze and Vukojevic described efforts to better monitor fetal growth and to scientifically evaluate the methods used. They noted that the Dutch midwives association recently withdrew support for a system where midwives and gynecologists would work together on risk selection at birthing centers closely aligned with hospitals. Nancy Shute, a health and medicine reporter for NPR, said the story by de Vrieze and Vukojevic led them to an understanding of “why science doesn’t always drive health care.” Christina Horsten, a correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur ─ a German news agency ─ called the piece a “beautiful, gut-wrenching and deeply touching piece of writing that highlights a very important issue.” Vukojevic and de Vrieze talked with colleagues about whether it would be appropriate for them to write about their son’s stillbirth, and concluded that the perspective of the parents was an essential part of a thoroughly researched story. “This award recognizes that such a personal involvement can result not just in a touching, human story, but also in balanced, in-depth and urgent science journalism as well,” the couple said.
Freelancer, Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich)
March 23, 2016 (Translation)
In 1989, German scientists plowed a patch of sea floor off Ecuador to study the possible effects of deep sea mining. They monitored the ten-square-kilometer plot for a few years and then moved on. In the summer of 2015, a new German research vessel returned to the site to explore what had happened in the 26 years since the first excavations in the fragile ecosystem. They found life on the sea floor has barely recovered. Not even bacteria have managed to fully recolonize the scars in the ocean floor, researchers found. Other species have never returned. Some lighter-colored sediments thrown up onto the seafloor during the plowing have not darkened as expected. A 1978 exploratory effort by a U.S.-based company also has raised concerns, Schrader wrote. Its extraction of metal lumps and just a four-centimeter layer of sediment reduced the biodiversity of the affected seafloor, including a significant decline in sea worms, according to 2004 scientific survey. With many unanswered questions, scientists are in a race to better understand the impact of the scarring, Schrader noted, while deep-sea mining for manganese nodules and other minerals has again become an area of interest for resource-poor industrial states such as Germany, Japan and South Korea. Island nations such as Tonga and Naru see it as their route to prosperity. Robert Lee Hotz, a science writer for The Wall Street Journal, called Schrader’s story “an excellent report on the aftermath of a forgotten sea floor experiment.” Shute of NPR said: “Schrader’s lively writing takes readers to the depths of the ocean to discover how a long-ago dredging experiment affects life on the seafloor, and how those ecosystems could be shattered by seafloor mining.” In commenting on the award, Schrader noted that floor of the deep sea is “basically terra incognita” and proposed environmental protection measures “are more guestimates than the product of proper research.” With companies “preparing to send machines the size of houses down there to collect and crush rocks,” he said, “it is very important to have a state-funded research infrastructure available like the German research ships that are there for the long haul and that are funded outside of the logic of short-term projects.”
Small Newspaper—Circulation less than 150,000
Freelancer, Point Reyes Light (California)
“Busted! Breast Cancer, Money and the Media” (11-part series)
Nov. 5, 2015 – Jan. 21, 2016
In his series for the Point Reyes Light, Peter Byrne took a close look at claims of a breast cancer epidemic among white women in upscale Marin County and found that widespread cancer screening, producing many false positives, is the likely cause of a feared “cancer cluster” in the county. He reported that many non-cancerous findings are erroneously entered in the state’s cancer registry as cancerous. “There is not more breast cancer in Marin than elsewhere, experts say; rather, it is detected more frequently—and often erroneously,” Byrne wrote. “Over the decades, the persistent belief that wealthy white women are more at risk of breast cancer has skewed research priorities and undermined the effectiveness of public health activities around the nation.” In Marin, the county health department excluded non-white women from most of its studies on breast cancer causation, Byrne found, and bypassed data disproving its conclusions. He quoted experts elsewhere who argue that Marin’s high incidence rate is a statistical anomaly caused by sociological factors. The more screenings a woman gets, “the more likely she is to be called back for a second mammogram or to be falsely diagnosed with cancer,” Byrne wrote. He recounted the case of one woman whose misdiagnosis led to an unnecessary mastectomy. When the woman sought her records at the California Cancer Registry, she found that the abstract was missing vital information and contained substantial mistakes. Byrne, who obtained a series of internal audits and progress reports on the registry, concluded that its chronic data-quality problems are worsening. “Peter Byrne’s reporting is exhaustive, showing how a local reporter working on a subject of intense local interest can shed new light on global issues of cancer, misdiagnosis and medical misreporting,” said Hotz of The Wall Street Journal.
Barbara Peters Smith
June 5, 2016
More than half of the 1.25 million Americans infected by the human immune deficiency virus (HIV) are age 50 or older, Barbara Peters Smith reported in her award-winning piece. In just four years, that share should reach 70 percent. “As the longevity boom collides with a resurgence of HIV diagnoses nationwide, scientists are just now learning how this persistent, incurable virus ─ along with the powerful drugs that keep it at bay ─ takes a toll on the body that makes natural aging look like a gift,” she wrote. People with HIV experience age-related changes in their DNA more than 14 years sooner than healthy individuals, one study found, and that boosts their risk for earlier onset of frailty, certain cancers, osteoporosis, liver and kidney damage, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Through interviews with patients, doctors, researchers and a community activist, Smith explored how time is taking its toll on a generation of AIDS survivors. Angela Saini, a London-based freelance science writer, said Smith’s story highlighted “an aspect of the HIV story that gets too often forgotten or ignored.” Smith said her story, inspired by an AIDS researcher who described the accelerated aging process he sees in his patients, “found its heart in Jack Cox of Sarasota, a remarkable HIV-positive gentleman who died at 76 less than a month after the story was published.”
Stephen S. Hall
Freelancer, Scientific American
The gene editing technique called CRISPR is much in the news, but the judges praised Hall’s piece for not only explaining the powerful new technique but also using a very specific example– preventing the decay of store-bought mushrooms – to show how the new science may be having its most profound and least publicized effect in agriculture. “By the fall of 2015, about 50 scientific papers had been published reporting uses of CRISPR in gene-edited plants, and there are preliminary signs that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one of the agencies that assess genetically modified agricultural products, does not think all gene-edited crops require the same regulatory attention as ‘traditional’ genetically modified organisms or GMOs,” Hall wrote. Because the gene-editing does not involve introducing foreign genes into the plants, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service decided last year that the crops do not need to be regulated as GMOs, Hall noted. With the regulatory door even slightly ajar, companies are rushing to get gene-edited crops into fields and, ultimately, onto store shelves, he said. One plant biologist has proposed that gene-editing methods can be used to “rewild” food plants by resurrecting traits that have been lost during generations of agricultural breeding. Although CRISPR is more precise than traditional plant breeding, it is not infallible, according to Hall. “Off-target” cuts in the genome have raised safety concerns, particularly for any efforts to edit human sperm and egg cells (a prospect widely decried as unethical). Researchers say that refinements to CRISPR are improving the specificity of the technique. “Of all the CRISPR stories I’ve read, this stood out as both informative and engaging,” said Saini. “It is just excellent.” Hall said he had been looking for an agriculture-related CRISPR story. “My ears pricked up when I was on the phone with Yinong Yang and he mentioned that he had done gene-editing on mushrooms to slow the process of browning,” Hall said. “I do a lot of cooking (and cook a lot with mushrooms), so it made more of a palpable, cutting-board connection with me than other CRISPR-altered crops like rice or potatoes. I hadn’t done a genetic engineering/agriculture story since a 1987 piece for Smithsonian on efforts to develop frost-resistant crops, so it seemed like a good time to circle back.”
July 14, 2016
April 28, 2016
Jan. 14, 2016
In a trio of stories from China, Nepal and Tibet, Beijing-based freelancer Jane Qiu described how fossil finds in China are challenging ideas about the evolution of modern humans and our closest relatives; how rapid changes in Tibetan grasslands are threatening Asia’s main water supply and the livelihood of nomads; and how scientists are wiring up mountainsides in Nepal to monitor and forecast heightened landslide hazards in the wake of last year’s devastating Nepalese earthquake. The judges praised Qiu’s initiative and in-the-field reporting skills. Her piece on seismic monitoring in Nepal notes that the instrumentation can do more than help pinpoint where the side of a mountain will collapse. Himalayan nations also face increasing risks from landslides because of deforestation, road construction, population growth and other changes that have led people to live in hazardous locations. In Tibet, Qiu talked to herders whose concerns are at odds with reports from Chinese state media about the health of Tibetan grasslands. In delving into the Chinese fossil record on human origins, Qiu told her readers that despite the different interpretations of that record, “everybody agrees that the evolutionary tale in Asia is much more interesting than people appreciated before.” The results remain fuzzy, she finds, because so few researchers have excavated in Asia. “Qiu provides a much-needed perspective on science in Asia, including politically sensitive topics such as the effects of government policies on the environment and economy of Tibet,” NPR’s Shute said. “Two of the stories allowed me to undertake incredible journeys to the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas, where the daily struggle and utter helplessness of many mountain communities inspired me to bring their predicament into the spotlight," Qiu said. "I’m very grateful for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the SciDev.Net Investigative Science Journalism Fellowship for the Global South which made the trips possible. It’s a tremendous honor to be recognized for the work. The award is also a testament to the commitment by Nature to nurture emerging writers and promote excellent reporting in the developing world.”
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Rebecca Morelle and Stuart Denman
BBC Newsnight, BBC World
Nov. 23, 2015 (Transcript)
Setting the stage for what proved to be a landmark conference on climate change in Paris, Rebecca Morelle and Stuart Denman traveled to a high-altitude research laboratory in the Swiss Alps to talk with scientists who have been keeping an eye on rising levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the broadcast, Morelle reviewed the history of global negotiations to control human-generated atmospheric emissions, including the successful effort to reduce substances that damage Earth’s protective ozone layer. In interviews with the UN official in charge of the climate conference and a leading environmental lawyer, Morelle and producer Denman described an evolving political climate that buoyed prospects for success at the climate talks, where representatives of 195 nations ultimately reached accord on the first universal, legally-binding agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions. The judges praised the pair’s concise but effective introduction to a topic long in the news but of increasing urgency as scientists learn more about the likely consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. David Baron, former science and health editor for Public Radio International’s “The World” broadcast, said they “took a dry yet important subject and made it lively and compelling through smart writing, fast editing, and fun graphics. The story was cleverly conceived and deftly executed.” Morelle and Denman said they wanted to make a film that went back to basics. “From the science of climate change, to the complex history of UN meetings and the endless acronyms ─ UNFCCC, INDC, ADP ─ we wanted our film to guide our viewers through the summit, to explain what it was about and why it mattered,” they said. “Above all though, we wanted it to be entertaining. There’s no point making a primer if people aren’t going to watch it.”
Nsikan Akpan and Matthew Ehrichs
June 21, 2016 (Transcript)
Nsikan Akpan told viewers how odors swirl through the air like turbulent dyes flowing through water. The physics of movement in each medium is similar, scientists say, and understanding how odors propagate through the environment could be an important step in developing better artificial “noses” to detect hidden explosives or chemical weapons or other contraband of interest. Such studies also are laying the groundwork for a nationwide study on how humans and animals use smells to map their surroundings. “The NewsHour takes a cue from YouTube with this innovative snapshot of how smells flow around us,” said Richard Hudson, long-time director of science production for Twin Cities Public Television. “Nsikan Akpan is engaging and accessible as he interacts with onscreen graphics.” He called the segment a “good creative stretch by the NewsHour.” Lawrence Engel, associate professor of communication at American University and a documentary film producer, said Akpan’s report “gave a new look at an old subject that was produced in an innovative way. It was fresh and lively, bringing elements of the best new filming and editing techniques from the web to the TV screen.” Akpan said he and producer Matthew Ehrichs are “drawn to stories about the journey of scientific discovery, rather than the end result.” Added Ehrichs, “We wanted to make something different but still respect the science.” Without diluting the importance of the research, he said, “We knew in this evolving industry that we had to push the envelope to make something full of energy yet quickly digestible.”
In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Bosse Lindquist, Johannes Hallbom, Johan Brånstad, Anna Nordbeck, Jakob Larsson, Johannes Wahlström and Emil Engerdahl
Swedish Public Television (SVT)
Jan. 13, 2016 (Transcript)
“The Experiments: Every surgeon has his own graveyard”
Jan. 20, 2016 (Transcript)
“The Experiments: The Labyrinth of Truth”
Jan. 27, 2016 (Transcript)
Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini gained international attention in 2011 when he announced he had performed the world’s first synthetic organ transplant by replacing a patient’s trachea, or windpipe, with a plastic tube. When doubts arose about the success of subsequent operations, Karolinska officials disregarded the results of an investigation by an outside expert and reaffirmed their faith in Macchiarini. In a gripping three-part documentary, reporter Bosse Lindquist explained how the surgeon did not fully inform his patients about the risks of the trachea implants and had falsified research results in journal articles. The documentary included surgical camera footage for one of Macchiarini’s patients that seemed to show more underlying airway damage than the surgeon had described in published scientific articles. Most of Macchiarini’s trachea patients died, including a woman treated in Russia who was not seriously ill prior to treatment. In early September, the Swedish government dismissed all remaining Karolinska board members who were active during Macchiarini’s tenure. Baron said that the Swedish documentary “is true investigative journalism of the highest order, and the producers told the complex story with the utmost skill and artistry. Ultimately, it is a cautionary tale that anyone who works in clinical research would be well advised to watch and to heed.” In a statement, the SVT team said: “We are honored to receive the AAAS Kavli Gold Award. We are especially glad as the core issues of the Macchiarini affair are so important. Patients must not be unwittingly experimented on. Animal testing must come before trials on humans – not vice versa. The integrity of science must be upheld and falsifications and untruths must be kept out of the scientific record.”
Peter Oxley, Gwyn Williams, Rob Hartel and Kirk Johnson
Windfall Films (London) for NOVA/WGBH
“Making North America” series
The three-part NOVA series on “Making North America” describes how powerful geological forces formed a continent, how life evolved on that continent, how humans first set foot on North America, and what surprises the continent’s changing landscape may have in store for us. The lushly photographed series, with stunning computer graphics that recreate a world of tectonic upheaval, provides a look deep into our planet’s history. Paleontologist Kirk Johnson, an enthusiastic and fearless guide, takes viewers on an extended field trip to some of the most stunning locales on the continent, including the Grand Canyon where exposed rock layers allow scientists to peer hundreds of millions of years into the past to track the ebb and flow of desert sands and shallow seas. Whether rappelling off the edge of the Grand Canyon, flying over erupting Kilauea in Hawaii, descending deep into a Canadian mine, or taking the controls of heavy equipment at a Manhattan construction site, Johnson takes his viewers along on a grand tour and an intellectual adventure. Eliene Augenbraun, multimedia managing editor for Nature Research Group, asks: “Did you ever wonder how a geologist sees a landscape ─ I mean really sees it? This film gives you deep insight into how to interpret and really see the layers of history buried or exposed over geological time.” Added Engel: “It’s really hard to make rocks interesting, but this three-part adventure across North America and immersion in its geologic history made for a compelling story. I won’t look at mountains or New York City in the same way again.” Geology is a window into previous versions of Planet Earth, Johnson said. “Whenever I look at rocky outcrops, I see these lost Worlds. ‘Making North America’ allowed me to share my excitement about our continent with millions of people.” Through the series, along with NOVA’s digital and educational resources, “We hope to have tapped into our viewers’ sense of wonder about our land, uncovering clues about our past—and possibly our future—that lie just beneath our feet,” said Senior Executive Producer Paula S. Apsell of NOVA.
Ari Daniel and Peter Thomson
Public Radio International’s “The World”
Jan. 18, 2016
Jan. 19, 2016
Nov. 27, 2015
From a desolate volcanic landscape in the highlands of Iceland to the edge of the world’s second largest ice sheet in Greenland, reporter Ari Daniel and environment editor Peter Thomson of PRI’s “The World” took listeners to the frontiers of field research on current and potential effects of climate change. “Ari Daniel brought listeners along on an exciting and fascinating ride to explore melting glaciers in Greenland and Iceland,” said Rich Monastersky, features editor in the Washington office of the journal Nature. “The vivid pieces put us right there with the scientists as they investigated the impacts of climate change.” Daniel described efforts, using a new high-definition laser, to better monitor changes in the thickness of the Helheim glacier in Greenland and track how individual parts of the glacier are changing speed. He joined oceanographers on a research vessel in Sermilik fjord, where huge icebergs that have broken away from the glacier are displacing ocean water and causing sea levels to rise. Using temperature probes, scientists have learned that water at the bottom of the fjord – 2000 feet down – is 39 degrees Fahrenheit, warm enough to melt glacial ice. They’ve been probing the waters for concentrations of noble gases that can distinguish melted snow and ice from the top of the glacier and melted ice from the bottom of the glacier, deep underwater. Knowing the subtle signatures of different types of water can help scientists determine how the ocean, the glacier and the air are interacting in a warming environment. In Iceland, Daniel told listeners, retreating glaciers could eventually trigger impacts that are far from subtle ─ more active volcanoes. Land depressed by the huge weight of now retreating ice sheets is rising about an inch a year in the Icelandic Highlands, generating additional molten magma in a nearby volcanic hotspot. “I was fortunate to witness the melting edges of our changing planet through the discerning and admiring eyes of those who devote their lives to these frosty landscapes,” Ari Daniel said. “Peter and I are honored to have received the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism award for the stories about these brave scientists working in such remarkable locations.” Daniel's reporting trip was funded with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Shankar Vedantam, Kara McGuirk-Allison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak
“Hidden Brain” podcast ─ “When Great Minds Think Unlike: Inside Science’s ‘Replication Crisis’ ”
May 24, 2016 (Transcript)
NPR’s Shankar Vedantam and his producers explored why findings in scientific studies may fail to hold up when other researchers try to reproduce them. The issue was spotlighted in 2015 when University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek and a consortium of colleagues reported they had been able to reproduce the original results in fewer than half of 100 published psychology studies. Vedantam looked more closely at efforts to replicate one study on the effects of gender and ethnic stereotyping on performance by Asian women in math tests. In the study, volunteers who were reminded they were women did worse on the tests. Others, selected at random, who were reminded instead about their Asian heritage, did better. There were two efforts to replicate the study, which was conducted in the Boston area by a female researcher. One follow-up in Georgia ─ also conducted by a woman ─ was successful. Another in California, conducted by both male and female facilitators, was not. Variables such as the geographic location of the studies, the sex of the experimenters, the strength of the stereotypes in the populations under study, can affect the outcome of such studies. “Any individual study is just that, an individual study,” Vedantam told his listeners. “It isn’t the truth.” While there certainly are studies that are poorly designed, shoddily carried out and even occasionally fraudulent, Vedantam said most are well-considered efforts by researchers to slowly accumulate evidence about the workings of the world and the people in it. Scientists and journal editors are looking for ways to publish more reproductions of earlier work, including results that are mixed or confusing. The results may be more nuanced than popular notions of how science proceeds, says Vedantam, who cautioned his listeners: “If you want answers that never change, definitive conclusions and final truths, odds are you don’t want to ask a scientist.” Naomi Starobin, a veteran radio producer, said Vedantam “brings sophistication to the coverage and yet keeps things at an approachable level. His writing and voicing displays his enthusiasm and confidence about his subject matter.” In a statement, Vedantam and his colleagues said: “Many people turn to science for answers. But as our podcast says, science is more in the question business than the answer business.”
Charles Piller and Natalia Bronshtein
Dec. 13, 2015
Dec. 13, 2015
Feb. 16, 2016
Charles Piller reported that researchers at leading medical institutions had routinely disregarded a law requiring public reporting of study results to the federal government’s ClinicalTrials.gov database, thereby depriving patients and doctors of information that would help them better compare the effectiveness and side effects of treatments for diseases such as advanced breast cancer. Piller found that four of the top 10 recipients of federal medical research funding from the National Institutes of Health were the worst offenders: Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California, San Diego. While the federal government has the power to withhold grant funds or impose fines of up to $10,000 a day per trial for failure to report results to the database, Piller found it had not levied a single penalty. The NIH reported in February that researchers had significantly increased their public reporting of trial results during the two months after Piller’s story, with data visualizations by Natalia Bronshtein, was posted. An NIH official attributed part of the improvement to Piller’s investigation and also cited the agency’s own outreach and training efforts. Judge Guy Gugliotta, a freelancer and former science writer for The Washington Post, called Piller’s entry “superbly reported, hard-hitting journalism in the best tradition of public service.” Piller said the award for the STAT investigation is gratifying and lends “support for the idea that greater transparency is essential for evidence-based medicine and patient safety.”
Aug. 19, 2015
Jan. 6, 2016
March 24, 2016
For the first piece of her award-winning entry, Christie Aschwanden, a reporter for FiveThirtyEight, spent months exploring the seeming rash of reported incidents of misconduct and fraud in scientific research and concluded that the headline-grabbing cases are “mere distractions.” She added: “If we’re going to rely on science as a means for reaching the truth ─ and it’s still the best tool we have ─it’s important that we understand and respect just how difficult it is to get a rigorous result.” She proceeded to highlight that difficulty with a revealing dive into the world of “p-hacking,’ a method for statistically narrowing or expanding a data set to make competing hypotheses appear correct. The results of studies can be heavily reliant on the analytical choices that researchers make, she writes, and those are choices they usually make in good faith. Her second piece delved into the world of memory-based food diaries, questionnaires on self-reported dietary intakes that can be manipulated by p-hacking to produce “statistically relevant” results that are not real. Aschwanden’s third piece explored the so-called “replication crisis” in science, concluding that the resulting emphasis on more transparency and data sharing is a healthy sign that science is working and that no single study can provide definitive evidence. Kate Lunau, the Toronto-based Canada editor for Motherboard, said Aschwanden’s pieces offered a “well-written, clear, concise, and an important view into the scientific process for readers.” She applauded their “good interactive graphics” that “make full use of the digital medium.” Aschwanden said her reporting “sent me down so many rabbit holes that sometimes I wondered if I’d ever crawl out. But obsessions are like that, and I’m so pleased to have finally turned what has become a years-long obsession into something cohesive that might start conversations about important issues in science. When I say that I’m FiveThirtyEight’s Chief P-value correspondent, I’m only partially joking.”
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
Gross Science from NOVA (videos)
Jan. 25, 2016 (Transcript)
Jan. 4, 2016 (Transcript)
Feb. 10, 2016 (Transcript)
Anna Rothschild engaged her early adolescent viewers with a series of brightly written pieces about the microbial culprits behind cavities, a clever homemade microscope that can be used to view the denizens of pond scum, and a frank and informative discussion of menstrual periods. “Funny, compelling, intriguingly gross and hugely informative—the videos written, edited, animated and narrated by the multi-talented Anna Rothschild do a marvelous job of conveying science in a form that is kid-friendly and likely to stick in young brains,” said Claudia Wallis, managing editor of Scientific American Mind. “The three submissions were wildly different but consistently strong.” Rothschild’s exploration of the biology of menstruation, which she called “not so gross” science, was timed to St. Valentine’s Day. “I’m so romantic,” she interjected. The piece emphasized that periods are “a totally normal part of life that are experienced by about half the population.” Her do-it-yourself microscope used the lens from a laser pointer and a cell phone’s camera to make a simple device that can readily reveal a variety of organisms swimming around in a few drops of water. And for a program named “Gross Science,” what better targets of opportunity for viewing than a bit of ear wax and some dust from under the bed? The segment on cavities noted that the microbes in the biofilm on your teeth, called plaque, really love sugar. “So, when you suck on a lollipop, you’re not the only one getting a tasty treat,” Rothschild told her viewers. “I first fell in love with science while doing ‘gross’ experiments in my middle school biology class,” Rothschild said. “By exploring the slimy, smelly underbelly of nature, medicine, and technology in my videos, I hope to help future generations of students develop a passion for science, too.”
Science News for Students (online site)
June 2, 2016
From its opening paragraphs about a zoologist’s unwise affection for a pet eel named “Sparky,” to its description of an eel’s use of electrical pulses to trick its prey into revealing their location, Roberta Kwok’s story on electric eels offered a fascinating glimpse into the behavior of these underwater predators capable of demolishing an entire school of fish. Philip Stoddard, the Florida International University zoologist who attempted to pet Sparky, was immediately zapped with about 500 volts of electricity, roughly four times the jolt he would have received from a typical electrical outlet in a North American house. As he told Kwok, it was Sparky’s way of saying, “Don’t even think about it, Phil!” Ken Catania, a Vanderbilt University biologist, told Kwok how electric eels use bursts of electricity to freeze their prey in place and also use the current like radar to figure out an animal’s position. Catania has found that an eel’s short burst of electricity can cause a goldfish’s muscles to twitch, creating ripples in the water that the eel can feel and use to find a hiding fish. Each time Catania watched the eels closely, new questions emerged. While he remains curious about what it would be like to get a shock from a big electric eel, he has not followed Stoddard’s lead. As Kwok put it, “That’s one question he’ll leave unanswered.” Kwok’s account “is not only a ripping good yarn, it is also a wonderful description of the process of science,” said freelance writer John Carey. “Her story makes science seem both fun and compelling—and something that children could aspire to do themselves.” Kwok said she was intrigued by research that “started as a spontaneous side project driven by one scientist’s curiosity, which he then had to devise rather odd and increasingly complicated experiments to satisfy. His story gave me a great opportunity to illustrate the scientific process to kids.”