A History of Excellence

Earl Lane

From its beginnings as an effort to recognize U.S. newspaper reporting on science at the dawn of the Atomic Age, the program that was to become the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards has sought to foster better public understanding of science and its global impact.


The awards were established in 1945 by the Westinghouse Educational Foundation through the initiative of Robert D. Potter, the president of the National Association of Science Writers. AAAS was asked to administer the awards program, which was meant to encourage good science journalism at a time when very few news outlets had full-time science writers.


Over the years, the awards have gone to some of the nation’s most distinguished writers and broadcasters, including Natalie Angier, Paula Apsell, Jeremy Bernstein, Jerry Bishop, Deborah Blum, Henry S.F. Cooper, Timothy Ferris, Atul Gawande, Elizabeth Kolbert, Walter Sullivan, Earl Ubell and John Noble Wilford.


Rachel Carson won the 1950 magazine award for “Birth of an Island” in the Yale Review. During the 1960s, Philip Morrison, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke each won the magazine award. Newspaper winners include a trio of Blakeslees: Howard Blakeslee, received a citation in 1945, the inaugural year of the program; Alton Blakeslee, his son and long-time science editor of The Associated Press, won the newspaper award in 1952; Sandra Blakeslee, Alton’s daughter and Howard’s granddaughter, won the large-newspaper award in 1971.


As the program expanded from solely a newspaper award to include categories for magazines (in 1947), radio and television (1981), online (2001), and children’s science news (2005), the more than 350 winners of the award have included both the famous and – quite often – talented journalists whose science writing had not previously received national recognition.


The Kavli Foundation assumed sponsorship of the awards in 2009 with a $2 million endowment that assured the long-term future of the program. It also allowed creation of two awards in the television category, one for in-depth reporting and another for spot news/feature reporting. In recognition of the foundation’s generosity, the awards were named the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.


In 2015, the 70th year since the program was established, The Kavli Foundation doubled its endowment. For the first time, entries were accepted from journalists around the globe in all categories. The expanded endowment also permitted two awards in each of the eight categories for the first time − a Gold Award ($5,000) and a Silver Award ($3,500).


Nearly 40 percent of the 2015 winners were international entries, comparable to the percentage of international entries received for the contest. The new global era for the AAAS Kavli awards was off to a good start. “The breadth of the winning work and the diversity of outlets in which it appeared demonstrate the vitality of science journalism at a time when public understanding of science is more important than ever,” said Rush D. Holt, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “I expect the awards will prove to mean as much for international science writers as they have over the years for science writers in the United States.”


The contest is well-regarded by science journalists because independent judging panels of their peers select the winners. In an introduction to a booklet of essays honoring the 50th anniversary of the awards competition, Natalie Angier of The New York Times – a 1992 winner in the large newspaper category – wrote that her AAAS award meant more to her than her Pulitzer Prize. “After 12 years as a working science reporter,” she said, “I had at last passed peer review myself. I persuaded my specialty’s equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition that sometimes, at least, I get things right.”


Under the contest rules, a person can win the award no more than three times. There have been 12 three-time laureates, including Apsell of PBS’s NOVA series; Sullivan, the long-time science editor of The New York Times; J. Madeleine Nash of Time magazine; and Robert Lee Hotz of The Wall Street Journal. Nearly three dozen journalists have won the award twice.


When Potter first proposed an awards program to bring recognition to the profession of science writing, he approached G. Edward Pendray, a former science writer who was an assistant to the president of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, for funding. His proposal coincided with plans by Westinghouse to honor its founder, George Westinghouse, and a grant was offered. But Potter had concerns.


“The NASW did not want to have it said that it had accepted money from a commercial corporation for fear that it might be considered in a wrong light by the journalism profession,” James B. Conant, then president of AAAS and also president of Harvard University, wrote in a document describing the founding of the awards program. So NASW approached Otis Caldwell, the general secretary of AAAS, to see if the association would agree to administer the program.


Caldwell wrote to Pendray of Westinghouse and proposed establishment of the Westinghouse Science Writer’s Award. The Westinghouse Educational Foundation financed the awards and the work of the judging committees but it left the administration of the program solely in the hands of AAAS.  


Westinghouse supported the program until 1993. The Whitaker Foundation funded the awards from 1994 to 2003. From 2004 to 2008, Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development, L.L.C. sponsored the awards, including establishment in 2005 of the first category open to journalists from around the world: reporting on science news for children. The Kavli Foundation assumed sponsorship in 2009 and, through its endowment, put the program on a self-sustaining basis.


“We thank the Foundation and its founder, Fred Kavli, for this generous support of a program that has fostered strong, probing science writing for more than half a century,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS at the time. He noted that “there is more need than ever for journalism that explains and illuminates the role of science in our changing global society.” 


“Through their insight and craftsmanship, science journalists convey how science is integral to our lives, and in so doing deepen our understanding of the universe and ourselves,” said the late Fred Kavli, founder and chairman of The Kavli Foundation. “We are delighted to support a program honoring this work, particularly in an age that promises so many new and exciting scientific discoveries.”