Stories on the social value of aging female killer whales, a frantic meteor hunt in the Australian Outback and the unusual brain of the world’s greatest solo climber are among the winners of the 2017 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
Judges also honored “Boomtown, Flood Town,” an ambitious online report by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune on the likelihood of fiercer rainstorms in the Houston area due to climate change and the impact of unmanaged growth on flood risk. The report was published more than eight months before Hurricane Harvey dumped torrential rain on Texas, with resulting catastrophic flooding.
A Reuters team won the Gold Award for large newspapers for a series on the emergence of “superbug” infections and ─ in the absence of a unified national surveillance system ─ the failure of federal and state health authorities to adequately track such infections. Hundreds of thousands of antibiotic-resistant infections and tens of thousands of related deaths go uncounted each year, the team found. Researchers trying to develop new drugs to combat superbugs face financial and legal hurdles that have hampered their efforts, the Reuters reporters found.
The science journalism awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since their inception in 1945, honor distinguished reporting for a general audience. Endowed by The Kavli Foundation, today the awards are an internationally recognized measure of excellence in science journalism and are open to journalists worldwide. There were entries this year from 44 countries, with winners from Australia, Canada, Germany, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Independent panels of science journalists select the winners. A Gold Award ($5,000) and a Silver Award ($3,500) are presented in each of eight categories.
Victoria Gill and Andrew Luck-Baker of BBC Radio 4 won the Gold Award in the audio category for a story on menopause among killer whales and the role of sprightly matriarchs who can be seen breaching the coastal waterways between British Columbia and Washington state.
Robbie McEwan of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation won the Silver Award in the same category for a lively story on the search for a meteorite ─ about the size of a loaf of bread ─ that fell to Earth in the Australian Outback.
J.B. MacKinnon, a Canadian freelancer for Nautilus, won the Silver Award in the magazine category for a piece exploring why Alex Honnold, who climbs towering rock walls without ropes or protective equipment, does not experience fear like the rest of us.
Two stories for High Country News also were among the winners. Douglas Fox wrote about the frightening dynamics of wildfires and Nick Neely described the discovery and probable disappearance of North America’s newest species of bird.
“The breadth of this year’s winning entries is quite remarkable,” said Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “By recognizing outstanding work, we seek to encourage established and emerging writers to produce ever more exemplary reporting and writing.”
The winners will receive their awards at a Feb. 16 ceremony held in conjunction with the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas.
Large Newspaper—Circulation of 150,000 or more
Ryan McNeill, Deborah J. Nelson, Yasmeen Abutaleb and the Reuters team
Sept. 7, Nov. 18, Dec. 15 and Dec. 22, 2016
Fifteen years after the U.S. government declared antibiotic-resistant infections to be a grave threat to public health, a Reuters investigation, “The Uncounted,” found that infection-related deaths are going uncounted because federal and state agencies are doing a poor job of tracking them. They lack the political, legal and financial power to impose rigorous surveillance, including mandating that specific drug-resistant infections be routinely recorded on death certificates. The number of deaths from such infections, regularly cited in news reports and scholarly papers, is mostly based on guesswork, the reporters found. A Reuters survey of health departments in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found wide variations in how seven leading “superbug” infections are tracked. Through interviews with patients and family members, the Reuters reporters also described the human and financial toll of superbug infections. They described the status of research efforts to develop more effective treatments to combat the emerging microbial threats, citing legal and financial obstacles that have made it harder than ever to create effective new drugs. “The Reuters investigation of the superbug problem broke new ground on a major health issue threatening the country,” said Warren Leary, a science writer formerly with The New York Times who helped judge the contest. “Fine work.” In a statement upon learning of their award, the team members said: “We were astounded at how little the nation knows about antibiotic-resistant infections, a problem that threatens how we practice modern medicine. Nobody knows how many people are dying or where. Worse, as our reporting showed, patients, their loved ones and the wider community are often left in the dark when an outbreak of these infections strikes.” Deborah Nelson, a member of the Reuters team, previously won the award in 2000 in the large newspaper category.
Sueddeutsche Zeitung − Munich, Germany
Aug. 31, 2016
For more than 10 years, Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki worked largely by himself on a proof of the so-called ABC conjecture, one of the most important unresolved problems in mathematics. In the summer of 2012, he published his proof. It is encompassed in four scientific articles that together fill about 500 pages, according to writer Marlene Weiss, who entered a mathematical realm where the language is so strange that hardly anybody but Mochizuki himself can find their way. He refuses to talk to journalists and did not respond to an interview request by Weiss. Undeterred, she provided her readers with a peek into a world where renowned mathematicians struggle to comprehend Mochizuki’s work and organize international conferences to grapple with his proof, a process that could take years. Weiss’s story is not a deep dive into the specifics of mathematics, but rather an effort to understand the culture of mathematics and a fascinating academic world where proofs can require hundreds of pages and reviewing them becomes an existential experience. “Can a story about a mathematician who refuses to explain his work be a delight?” asked Nancy Shute of NPR. “Yes, when it’s this Gogolesque romp.” Weiss said her story “is not only about beautiful mathematics, but also about a tragic case of mutual incomprehension – an issue people can relate to even without any mathematical background.”
Small Newspaper—Circulation less than 150,000
Freelancer, Mail and Guardian − Johannesburg, South Africa
Jan. 20, 2017
Jan. 27, 2017
In a moving series on forensic science and the quest to identify hundreds of unidentified dead who pass through the mortuaries of a single province in South Africa each year, Sarah Wild told the stories of both the professionals trying to improve the identification process and the families seeking to know what happened to their loved ones. Each year, between 1,300 and 1,600 people in Gauteng province are added to South Africa’s already long list of unidentified dead. Forensic anthropologist Ericka L’Abbe of the University of Pretoria, holding the skull of one person who died from blows to the head, told Wild “it breaks my heart that no one is looking for him.” Although South Africa has a robust forensic system and a Bureau of Missing Persons, Wild writes, there is no continental or regional database for missing people. Many of Gauteng’s unidentified dead are assumed to be from neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the South African system is groaning under the sheer numbers of unidentified dead and the burden of doing comprehensive investigations. One in 10 will ultimately remain unidentified. More research could help, Wild writes, “but no one is throwing money at forensic science.” And even more research money and data would not fix such fundamental problems as illegible writing in mortuary records and failure to enter such information as the responding police officer’s phone number and the unique crime administration number that identifies each case. Kate Lunau, Canada editor at Motherboard, a Vice News outlet, called Wild’s series “a chilling and well-researched story on forensics and its shortcomings, with a focus on the families left behind.” Wild said the story haunted her. “I could not let go of the idea that there were families waiting for people who would never come home,” she said. “TV shows give the impression that science holds all the answers, that we can identify a body from a scrap of clothing or DNA, but that is just not true. The crisis of the unidentified dead in South Africa shows that science has its limits.”
The Providence Journal
Nov. 20, 2016
March 19, 2017
July 9, 2017
Judges praised Alex Kuffner for his comprehensive look at the risks facing Rhode Island communities from either a once-in-a-century hurricane or a sea level rise of seven feet by the end of the century, as projected in a worst-case scenario by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Kuffner noted that 6 percent of residential structures within Rhode Island’s 21 coastal communities are currently vulnerable to some level of flooding in the event of a 100-year storm. That number would double if seven feet of sea level rise is factored in. One study estimates Southern New England is annually losing a greater percentage of tidal marsh vegetation – which acts as a floodwater sponge and protects inland areas from storms – than the fast-eroding Mississippi Delta. Kuffner described efforts to restore marshes and encourage their migration inland to higher ground. He also recounted the perils facing the beautiful and besieged saltmarsh sparrow, whose habitat has been dwindling due to draining and filling of marshlands for development. Sea level rise will only make matters worse, and some conservationists warn the sparrow may become the first bird to go extinct in the continental United States since 1931. Paul Raeburn, a freelance science writer, said Kuffner’s series was “a close look at a local issue, informed by a broader perspective.” Shute of NPR added that he helped local residents “understand the real risks they face from sea level rise and wetlands loss.” Kuffner noted that Rhode Island, with 400 miles of shoreline, is on the front lines of climate change. “It is a great honor to be recognized with this award for my work reporting on the state’s vulnerabilities to sea level rise and coastal storms,” he said.
Freelancer, High Country News
April 3, 2017
Douglas Fox took readers inside the dangerous and unpredictable behavior of wildfires, describing the audacious steps one team of researchers took to better understand the anatomy of a monster fire burning in southern Idaho in August 2016. An instrument-laden light aircraft penetrated the towering smoke plume of the fire, registering an 80 mile-per-hour updraft of hot, buoyant air, followed by a turbulent downdraft. Only aloft, some scientists say, can researchers start to really understand how a wildfire “breathes” and moves across the landscape. That may open new avenues for monitoring fires and predicting their behavior. From the bomb-induced firestorm in Hamburg, Germany, during World War II to the most recent wildfires in the American West and elsewhere, Fox takes a detailed look at the dynamics of catastrophic fires (two fires 10 miles apart can travel in opposite directions) and explains why new insights on plume behavior may help researchers see beyond the chaotic veneer of a wildfire to discern underlying, more predictable forces that guide its behavior. Kate Lunau of Motherboard called Fox’s story “an extremely timely, important investigation of the science of wildfires.” Fox previously won the award in 2009 in the children’s science news category.
Alex Honnold, the world’s greatest solo climber, doesn’t experience fear like the rest of us. He climbs to dizzying heights without a rope or protective equipment of any kind, shuffles across narrow sills of stone such as the “Thank God” ledge high atop the sheer granite face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. When J.B. MacKinnon, a Canadian freelance writer, approached Honnold about having scientists look at what goes on in his unusual brain, the climber said he once would have been afraid to submit himself to such scrutiny. But he agreed, and the result was a fascinating tour of the topography and activity of Honnold’s brain. When he and a control subject, another sensation-seeking rock climber, viewed gruesome, high-arousal photographs during functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans, Honnold’s amygdala ─ the brain’s fear center ─ showed zero activation while the other climber’s lit up like a neon sign. The piece goes on to describe the known functions of the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens, another brain structure, and explores the concepts of consolidation and visualization. The study of Honnold’s brain was strictly observational, but the researcher involved said it raises intriguing questions about brain control and regulation that might be applicable to other conditions, such as anxiety disorders. “Everyone seemed to be saying that Alex Honnold must be ‘wired differently’ in order to pull off his incredible feats of ropeless rock climbing, and I thought, ‘Well, these days we can find out if that’s true,’” MacKinnon said. “The answer proved to be more complicated and more fascinating. In the end, my own relationship with fear and climbing was so deeply changed that I was able to do some very humble ropeless rock climbing myself.” Robert Lee Hotz, a science writer for the The Wall Street Journal, said MacKinnon’s story “lights up with the joy of great reporting and ambitious enterprise: Who else would put the world’s most adventurous free climber into a brain scanner to probe the neural circuits that make most of us shudder, squirm and squeal with panic?”
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Melissa Hogenboom and Pierangelo Pirak
Oct. 24, 2016
Reporter Melissa Hogenboom and video producer Pierangelo Pirak entered the world of quantum weirdness, grappling in a visually engaging fashion with the theory that there may be multiple universes beyond our own. Equally intriguing ─ and unsettling ─ is the possibility that we may have cosmic twins very much like ourselves living in alternate universes. The ideas, usually confined to discussions among physicists and cosmologists, are driven by the mathematics of inflation theory and quantum mechanics. Hogenboom and Pirak explore the implications with several of the world’s leading theorists on alternate universes, inviting the viewer to at least glimpse the sort of speculation that has become respectable among serious scientists in recent years. Pushing the limits of the conceivable, it seems, can open new worlds of imagination that Hogenboom and Pirak enter with gusto. Their piece “offers a new way of speaking about a truly complex topic,” said Anna Nordbeck, a reporter for SVT, the Swedish public television network. “The reporting is suggestive and invites you to a mind-blowing world you’d probably never reach unless you have a special interest for it.” Hogenboom said she made the film “because I wanted to find an answer to the question ─ are we unique in the universe, something many of us have no doubt asked.” She added, “Winning the gold award for such an experimental film, tackling a really complex topic, is such an unexpected honor and inspires me to make more films like this.”
Catherine (Cat) Wise, Patti Parson, Jason Lelchuk, Murrey Jacobson and Sara Just
Oct. 12, 2016
Nov. 2, 2016
Cat Wise and her colleagues offered solid reporting on the uses of science to better understand the nearby environment. Researchers in Portland, Oregon, found that mosses from two neighborhoods had high levels of cadmium and arsenic, likely from a nearby glassmaking center. Using data from air quality monitoring stations, the researchers determined that mosses could be used as indicators of air pollution and allow a more comprehensive method for tracking potential problems in local air quality. In a second piece, Wise explained how a marine ecologist is using robots (with casings made from surplus fire extinguishers) to mimic the motions of crab larvae and microscopic marine life as they move through ocean waters during their development into adult organisms. Conventional wisdom says the larvae float passively in ocean currents, but the research suggests they can control their movements more than has been appreciated. “Both stories are well done and provide the viewer with insights into how scientists do their work,” said judge Larry Engel, a filmmaker and associate professor of communication at American University. “The scientists in our reports are engaged in fascinating and important research,” Wise said, “and we’re proud the award highlights their contributions to the field.”
In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg
Luna Productions for PBS
March 9, 2017
Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg described the career and impact of Marian Diamond, a neuroscientist whose pathbreaking studies with rats in the 1960s transformed the previous understanding of the brain as an immutable, fixed structure. She found anatomical changes in the rat brains that were due to environmental factors, opening the door to an understanding of the brain’s plasticity. Her results were resisted initially, with one male scientist loudly telling her after a talk: “Young lady, that brain cannot change.” Diamond persisted, following her curiosity where it led. She did the first scientific analysis of the most famous brain of all time, Albert Einstein’s, seeking confirmation of her hypothesis regarding the importance of glial cells in the brain. Diamond, who died on July 25, 2017 at the age 90, was a gifted teacher whose “Introduction to Human Anatomy” lecture series, posted on YouTube by the University of California, Berkeley, helped launch the internet-education revolution. She taught well into her 80s, and for decades brought a preserved human brain to her anatomy classes in a flowered hat box. “I love this film,” Engel said. “A great character, great pacing, engaging all the way through.” Ryan and Weimberg said the award “validates that the stories of women in science are important to tell, not as some special favor to women, but because their stories are an impressive pillar within the mainstream of science, and as such, need to be told.”
Llewellyn Smith and Kelly Thomson
May 31, 2017
NOVA investigated the science behind the disastrous results that occurred when officials in Flint, Michigan, decided to change the city’s water source to save money but ─ by overlooking a crucial corrosion control process ─ allowed lead from old lead water pipes to leach into the city’s drinking water. Thousands of residents, including particularly vulnerable children, were exposed to dangerously elevated levels of lead. In interviews with scientists, residents and public officials, NOVA explored the impact of the health crisis in Flint and beyond, noting that other water systems across the country have aging lead pipes that are similarly vulnerable. The program delved into the complexities of water chemistry and the biology of lead poisoning. It also described the distortion and dismissal of scientific research to support a misguided policy. “Poisoned Water” takes a thorough look behind the headlines to give viewers insight both into the environmental and human costs of the Flint water crisis and how public officials actively hid the danger thereby eroding the public trust. Guy Gugliotta, a freelance science writer, called the program “a tremendous public service, quite riveting and dripping with outrage.” Smith and Thomson said their award “not only honors the hard work of our production team, but also the heroic people of Flint and the independent investigative scientists – who all trusted us with their stories and without whom there would be no film.” Llewellyn Smith previously won the award in 2007 in the television category.
Victoria Gill and Andrew Luck-Baker
BBC Radio 4
Aug. 10, 2016
“Granny,” the oldest known killer whale, was estimated to be over 100 years old when she died. She was featured in the documentary by reporter Victoria Gill and producer Andrew Luck-Baker on menopause among female killer whales, who stop having babies in their 30s or 40s. Researchers want to know why the whales have such long post-reproductive lifespans and what their experiences may mean for short-finned pilot whales and humans – the only other mammalian species known to undergo menopause. The matriarchs among the killer whales lead from the front, helping their pod mates, including the adult males, find food. Research suggests that adult males may depend on the matriarchs for their survival. If a mother dies, the risk of death for her sons is about eight times higher in the following year. There also is evidence of a “grandmother effect” on the survival of younger members of the few remaining human hunter-gatherer societies. Judges praised Gill and Luck-Baker for telling a fascinating tale about whales in a lively manner, putting the listener in the boat with scientists as they went about their work. “The team took full advantage of its medium, with whale noises, gurgling water and entrancing word-pictures that made me feel as though I were swimming along with Granny and her offspring,” said Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer who formerly was with The Washington Post. “This project was a labor of love and this is a real endorsement of the aim of our program – to tell a beautiful story that ignited our curiosity about the natural world and about ourselves,” Gill said. “I hope this award might draw attention to what could be lost if the amazing group of orcas ─ that still hold so many fascinating secrets ─ are not protected.” Luck-Baker agreed: “My one regret is that we did not have sufficient time in the documentary to cover in greater depth the real extinction risk faced by this special population of orca, a small and diminishing clan of animals which can still teach us much about our own lives.”
Radio National, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Dec. 5, 2016
Deep in the Outback of southern Australia, Robbie McEwan recounted the hurried chase by planetary geologist Phil Bland and colleagues to find a meteorite that had been sighted by a cook taking a break on the veranda of a pub in a dusty desert town. More importantly, it also was detected by a new network of automated cameras recently deployed by Bland’s team in an ambitious effort to track meteors, not only to their final points of impact but also back to their points of origin in the solar system. McEwan followed the story of Bland and Aboriginal guide Dean Stuart as they raced to find the meteorite before predicted rains would turn the harsh, salt-crusted landscape to mud and likely erase any trace of the space rock. Even with data provided by his student assistants who had used a supercomputer to predict the mass of the meteorite – about the size of a football – and the coordinates for its impact, Bland knew it would be a challenge to find a tell-tale ring on the salt plain, described as “like a coffee stain.” McEwan captured the excitement as Bland, with the help of a colleague flying overhead in a light aircraft, located the rock just as the rains came. “It was the best moment that I’ve ever had in the field,” Bland said. Dan Vergano, a science reporter for BuzzFeed, called the piece “just tremendous fun, a great story of passion in science that pays off with a remarkable eureka moment.” McEwan adds, “For scientists searching for answers to the ever-deepening mysteries of the universe, life can be full of drama, joy and plain old hard work. This was certainly the case for the subjects of this story.”
Al Shaw, Neena Satija and Kiah Collier
ProPublica and The Texas Tribune
Dec. 7, 2016
In a comprehensive, richly interactive story, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported that more frequent and fiercer rainstorms are likely in cities like Houston due to climate change, even as unmanaged growth and lack of zoning have made the city more vulnerable to risk of flooding. In a story that presaged the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston area, the reporters took a closer look at two previous storms ─ the Memorial Day Flood of 2015 and the Tax Day Flood of 2016 ─ and described how the loss of undeveloped prairie and wetlands has made areas more prone to flooding. The areas are outside official floodplains designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As wetlands have been lost, the amount of impervious surface in Harris County increased by 25 percent from 1996 to 2011. Scientists say the Harris County Flood Control District, which manages thousands of miles of protective bayous, should focus more on preserving green space than building its way out of the problem. Houston’s top flood control officials said their biggest challenge is not coping with rapid growth but retrofitting outdated infrastructure. John Jacob, a wetlands scientist at Texas A&M University, said there is no way engineering projects or flood control regulations have made up for the loss of wetlands so far. Rami Tzabar, development editor for BBC Radio Science and World Service, called the story “a forensic analysis of everything that is wrong with current (and past) attitudes to flooding, an innate misguided belief that every major event is a freak of nature and that we can engineer our way out of the problem whilst largely ignoring the cause.” Emily Ramshaw, editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, said: “We are so very honored to win this extraordinary award recognizing the prescient reporting and crucial explanatory journalism of our devoted crew.”
Freelancer, High Country News online
July 12, 2017
In an engaging report from the South Hills of Idaho, Nick Neely wrote about the discovery and probable disappearance of North America’s newest bird species, the Cassia crossbill. The reddish birds have crowbar-like beaks that are capable of prying open the toughest cones from lodgepole pines, the birds’ seed source and co-evolutionary partners on which they entirely depend. University of Wyoming ecologist Craig Benkman and his colleagues discovered the Cassia crossbill in a range of just 27 square miles of lodgepole forest. They eventually convinced the American Ornithologists Union that the bird should be considered a separate species of crossbill, one that is isolated from squirrels as competitors for the precious lodgepole cones. But just as the bird has become eligible for protection under the Endangered Species Act, its future has become uncertain: an increasing number of days over 90 degrees has disrupted the cycle of seed dispersal from lodgepole cones. Under stress due to climate change, the lodgepole pine may disappear from southern Idaho by 2080, along with the colorful bird that is so dependent upon it. “Neely has deftly combined strong on-the-scene science reporting, with a great use of language, to tell a fascinating story of ecology, evolution and climate change, all tied up in one little bird,” said Sarah Zielinski, managing editor, Science News for Students. “It’s satisfying to see this story recognized, because I nursed it along for many years, visiting with Craig Benkman in Idaho’s South Hills multiple times, until the Cassia crossbill was finally declared a new species,” Neely said. “My goal with this story was to show, as John Muir wrote, ‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.’ This is especially true in ecology.”
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
Freelancer, Ask magazine
Elizabeth Preston wrote about a blind 13-year-old boy who has learned to use echolocation, a way of seeing with sound, more commonly associated with animals such as bats and dolphins. Humoody Smith, who was born in Iraq and lost his sight at the age of two, clicks his tongue as he walks through his neighborhood, sensing objects by listening for echoes. Preston describes ways in which her young readers can themselves experiment with echolocation. She also talked to a scientist who has used brain scans to determine that echolocators use areas of the brain normally associated with seeing when they maneuver. The researcher also has found that echolocators do more than just sense obstacles. They can often tell whether an object is a tree or a car or a lamppost. “Even though the subjects of the article are blind, the story is really about the remarkable flexibility of every human brain, with or without a disability,” Preston said. “That’s a message I was excited to bring to young readers.” Laura Helmuth, science, health and environment editor for The Washington Post, said it “was refreshing to have a child be the main character in the story.” She also noted the story’s “very humane and thoughtful guidance about how to talk to kids with disabilities.” Eliene Augenbraun, multimedia managing editor for Scientific American and Nature Research Group, said the story “invites kids to participate in experiments that change the way you think about your own life.”
Scholastic Science World
March 27, 2017
Jennifer Barone wrote about how plants detect and respond to changes in the world around them and even communicate with their neighbors through chemical signals. When scientists recorded vibrations of a caterpillar eating leaves and played the recording back to some plants but not others, the plants exposed to the munching sound produced more chemical defenses against the bugs. When sagebrush plants are attacked by hungry insects, researchers have found, they emit chemical cues into the air to alert neighboring plants. Trees also interact with their environment, Barone reported. Scientists in Austria and Finland used lasers to map the position of tree branches. “At night, the branches drooped, as if the trees were sleeping,” Barone wrote. “At sunrise, the branches perked up again as trees angled their leaves to catch sunlight.” Trees also can interact with a dense network of fungi beneath the forest floor to share nutrients or water with neighbors in need. Augenbraun of Nature Research Group, said Barone’s piece was “well written, engaging and told me things I did not know before. I loved the story of how plants hear caterpillar crunching and make more chemical defenses.” Barone said the story opened her eyes. “I hate to admit it, but until not too long ago, I grossly underestimated plants,” she said. “When I came across recent research on plant senses and behavior, I was blown away by how cool and sophisticated these organisms really are.”
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