Winners of the 2019 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards
Strong local reporting on the status of Puget Sound’s killer whales, the degradation of soils in a region of France, air quality in Utah, and the impact of an Idaho nuclear research facility are among the winning entries for the 2019 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
The judges also honored a NOVA program on “The Next Pompeii,” BBC audio reports on the development of technology that enabled astronauts to land on the moon, and a trio of stories by Sharon Begley for STAT on how fierce loyalty to the prevailing hypothesis on the origin of Alzheimer’s disease likely has hampered progress toward a cure.
The awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), recognize distinguished science reporting for a general audience. The awards program, endowed by The Kavli Foundation and open to journalists worldwide, will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year. There were entries from 47 countries this year.
A Gold Award ($5,000) and a Silver Award ($3,500) are presented in each of eight categories. Independent panels of science journalists select the winners.
A team for The Seattle Times won the Gold Award in the large newspaper category for a series on the plight of southern resident killer whales, or orcas, in the Puget Sound region. The Gold Award for spot news/features in the video category went to Mairead Dundas and Marina Bertsch of the France 24 network for a segment on dying soils. Maryn McKenna won the Gold Award in the magazine category for a piece in The New Republic on the impact of right-wing nationalism on global public health.
Reporters for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, Utah took both the Gold and Silver awards in the small newspaper category for stories on local air quality problems and the impact for Utah residents of the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. It is unusual for reporters from the same newspaper to win awards in the same category in a single year, but the judging panel was impressed by the work of the winners, Erica Evans and Amy Joi O’Donoghue, and their newspaper’s commitment to local reporting.
“Congratulations to the winners,” said Alan Leshner, interim AAAS chief executive officer. “The diversity of the stories is impressive and shows the power of good journalism to illuminate important issues in science and society.”
The winners will receive their awards at a Feb. 14 ceremony held in conjunction with the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle.
The full list of winners of the 2019 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards:
Large Newspaper—Circulation of 150,000 or more
Lynda V. Mapes, Steve Ringman, Ramon Dompor, Emily M. Eng and Lauren Frohne
The Seattle Times
“Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril” series
November 11, 2018
February 24, 2019
May 19, 2019
Lynda Mapes and her colleagues explored the plight of the southern resident killer whales, among the most enduring symbols of the Puget Sound region and among the region’s most endangered animals. They examined the role humans have played in the decline of the orcas, what can be done about it and why it matters. They looked at why Canadian orcas are healthy and growing in numbers while Puget Sound orcas are fighting for survival. They explored the relationship between chinook salmon and the southern resident orca pods, with both species struggling for survival after a century of habitat loss. Judge Nancy Shute, editor in chief of Science News, said the series was “a classic example of local journalists diving into a topic of concern for the community and explaining the whys.” The judges praised the use of graphics and photography to help tell the story. “I really enjoyed the exploration of how different parts of the ecosystem nourish and support each other,” said judge Maggie Koerth, a senior science writer for the FiveThirtyEight website. “It means so much for us here at The Seattle Times to see this recognition for the importance of the whales and their story, and the impact of local, independent journalism,” Mapes said. “Our thanks to the judges, and to the many scientists who helped us do our work.”
Le Monde (Paris)
July 10, 2019
Herzberg described the work of scientists trying to understand the past and potential future of Notre Dame cathedral in the wake of the devastating fire that nearly destroyed the historic structure in April 2019. The cathedral debris offers a wealth of insight into more than eight centuries of the structure’s architectural history. From the first night, art historians, archaeologists and curators helped firefighters save as much of the cathedral as possible. Once the real extent of the damage was known, teams of scientists were organized to explore the cathedral’s structure and materials. As one chemist told Herzberg, “Now we have a unique chance to explore the cathedral’s hidden parts, but also to extract intangible information that was inaccessible before. There is a real sense of urgency here, because this information can disappear very quickly.” Researchers also will be studying the range of human emotions linked to the heritage and fate of the cathedral. “It is awful to say so, but for us, the Notre Dame fire is the terrain of our dreams, an incredible opportunity,” an anthropologist told Herzberg. Judge Paul Raeburn, a veteran science writer and author, called Herzberg’s story “a really deep dive into the Notre Dame rebuilding efforts. The story puts the reader right on the ground in the cathedral.” Herzberg also won a silver award in this category in 2015. “The fire in Notre Dame horrified the whole world,” Herzberg said, noting that he had seen the flames while riding home on his bicycle. “It was a personal shock.” But in talking to scientists, he learned that the catastrophe also presented an urgent research opportunity. “All this knowledge, buried under centuries of history, was coming to the surface,” Herzberg said.
Small Newspaper—Circulation less than 150,000
Deseret News (Salt Lake City)
Oct. 21, 2018
Nov. 18, 2018
Dec. 26, 2018
In three related stories on Salt Lake City’s growing air pollution problem, Erica Evans investigated many of the ways the city has failed to implement change. Evans took a creative approach to a difficult topic, focusing on potential solutions and drawing inspiration from comparable cities. Her first story begins in Oslo, Norway, where Evans draws a direct parallel between the Norwegian city and Salt Lake City — both are heavily polluted regions that experience weather patterns in which polluted air is trapped close to the ground during winter. In Oslo, though, the city is successfully fighting air pollution. Evans investigates how this Norwegian community became Europe’s 2019 Green Capital award winner, and which aspects of their model could be applied to Salt Lake City. In her other pieces, Evans tackled the difficult politics surrounding air pollution in Utah, and the impact local policies can have on public behavior. Laura Helmuth, health, science and environment editor for The Washington Post, said Evans “built trust with the reader by explaining throughout the series who she was, why she was in Oslo, and how that city’s experience related to Salt Lake City – it was personal and open without being self-indulgent. Her analysis of what air-quality measures worked and didn’t, and why, was thoughtful and nuanced, and always clearly tied to what her local readers need to know.” Evans said her goal was to write on a subject familiar to her readers “in a way that was new and interesting.” She said the award affirmed her choice “to pursue reporting stories that are not necessarily in demand from readers.”
Amy Joi O’Donoghue
Deseret News (Salt Lake City)
Nov. 25, 2018
Three pieces by Amy Joi O’Donoghue, published on the same day, provided a comprehensive look at the history, future and current impact on Utah residents of the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. O’Donoghue investigated the lab’s current research, describing important projects and their significance for the local area. In a second piece, she focused on the future of the lab’s partnership with NuScale’s Carbon Free Power Project. The project, which could provide clean nuclear energy to Utah residents by 2026, has stirred up local controversy among legislators and energy companies. The last of the pieces explored the lab’s “legacy of contamination” and touched on the community’s ongoing struggle with the Environmental Protection Agency for stricter enforcement of pollution regulations. Maggie Koerth of FiveThirtyEight, called O’Donoghue’s entry “a great series delving into a world that local readers will find simultaneously familiar and mysterious.” She said it represented “crucial transparency journalism and a great example of how science reporting can help people understand both the benefits and risks” of the scientific enterprise. “In a remote area of Idaho, all sorts of intriguing and vital technologies are playing out,” O’Donoghue said. “Utah is in the midst of this, including the possible development of next generation nuclear power, so I wanted to learn more. It was absolutely the most fascinating assignment in my career.”
The New Republic
Maryn McKenna took a comprehensive look at the global history of public health and disease outbreaks, drawing a parallel between today’s public health crisis and a global rise in political and religious nationalism. She confronted many of the misconceptions that have been popularized by right-wing nationalist groups and debunked them with a series of carefully researched case studies. The spread of misinformation has led to a global crisis that needs immediate attention, McKenna found. “No matter where it has surfaced,” she wrote, “the nativist assault on public health is gaining traction—and as it does, protections against deadly diseases weaken.” The dangerous rejection of medical science poses new risks for global public health, McKenna wrote. “We are always at risk of a new disease breaking out, or a previously controlled one surging back. What’s different now is that the rejection of scientific expertise and the refusal to support government agencies leave us without defenses that could keep a fast-moving infection at bay.” Maggie Koerth called McKenna’s story “a beautiful and skillful blending of critical health issues and global political threats” that highlights “common threads that are putting public health at risk.” Paul Raeburn said McKenna “brings together a lot of disparate data and offers sharp analysis.” McKenna said that “writing about disease outbreaks can feel like a narrative trap; it’s difficult to describe them without making them all sound the same. I’m grateful to my editor Sasha Belenky and The New Republic for allowing me to uncover the deep connections between the outbreaks in this story: nationalist politics’ undermining of public health around the world.”
The Times Magazine (London)
April 6, 2019
Caucher Birkar grew up in a Kurdish peasant family in a war zone in Iran. An older brother started teaching him mathematics beyond what was in his textbooks, and he won acceptance into Tehran University, where his interest in math was further nurtured. But he eventually applied for asylum in Britain and was arbitrarily settled in Nottingham, where he lived with three other asylum seekers, unable to work and paying for food with vouchers. While in a “bureaucratic purgatory,” as Tom Whipple describes it, Birkar benefited from a happy circumstance. The local Nottingham University had a strong mathematics department and he found professors willing to listen to his math ideas. Whipple traces the arc of Birkar’s career from there to an eventual Fields Medal — the math equivalent of a Nobel — while now on the faculty at Cambridge University. Whipple does not shy away from trying to explain the substance of Birkar’s work in algebraic geometry, but he writes: “The problem with explaining maths is not, or at least not always, the stupidity” of the listeners. “It is more fundamental than that: it is language. Mathematics is not designed to be described in words. It is designed to be described in mathematics. This is the great triumph of the subject. It was why a Kurdish asylum seeker with bad English could convince a tenured professor he was a serious intellect.” Whipple’s story “is friendly and welcoming, which is especially important for a math story,” said Laura Helmuth of The Washington Post. “It challenged many of the myths of what it means to be a math genius — and, crucially right now, what it means to be a refugee.” Of his story, Whipple said: “It is difficult to know which is rarer in the national press — a profile of a Kurd or a long-form piece about algebraic geometry. This combined the two, and this award is a huge validation.”
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Mairead Dundas and Marina Bertsch
April 27, 2019
Dundas and Bertsch tackled the disappearance of top soil in their award-winning France 24 video. Through interviews with soil scientists, local farmers and specialists for food producer Nestle, they described the impact of industrial farming on soils in one region of France as an example of a much larger global trend. “One third of the world’s top soil has already been degraded,” Dundas explained, and that could have detrimental impacts on food production, erosion control and carbon sequestration. The answer? Some farmers suggest an alternative farming practice called conservation agriculture. Although currently fewer than five percent of France’s farmers practice conservation agriculture, the movement is gaining traction, leaving Dundas and Bertsch to ask, “can the method go mainstream?” Richard Monastersky, chief features editor for Nature, said the entry “packed a lot into a very short segment.” It discussed an important problem, he said, “and how scientifically informed techniques could help improve things.” Dundas and Bertsch said that “after reporting on the environment for a decade we thought we had covered most bases. But the health of our soil and its endangered status had somehow escaped us. When we learned that one of the world’s largest food companies was investing in a solution to this so-called ‘invisible’ crisis, we realized that what was at stake was essentially the future of our food supply.”
Agnes Walton, Lee Doyle, Arielle Duhaime-Ross and Ruben Davis
VICE News Tonight
Oct. 3, 2018
In a striking VICE News Tonight segment, the VICE team traveled to Knud Rasmussen Glacier in eastern Greenland to investigate the mechanisms behind glacial melt and sea level rise. They met up with NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland expedition — OMG for short — to learn how ocean water has a major impact on Greenland’s disappearing glacial ice. Scientists on the expedition are finding that warming ocean currents, hundreds of meters beneath the ocean surface, are by far “the biggest and most overlooked source of glacial melt.” The segment focused on the scientific process and emphasized the importance of work like NASA’s OMG research. The result is an informative piece of visual storytelling that freelance science writer Guy Gugliotta called “a smooth, swiftly comprehensive look at global warming from the far North.” Ruben Davis, senior producer for VICE News, said the team “endeavored to make a TV news segment that would help viewers understand how much is missed if both public and scientific attention focuses solely on glacial melt above sea level. The VICE News Climate Team and director of photography Madeleine Peters showed what’s going on underwater can be just as troubling.” VICE News Tonight ran for three seasons on HBO, ending in September 2019. The program is to relaunch on Viceland, a cable network joint venture of Vice Media and A+E Networks.
In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Duncan Bulling, Caterina Turroni, Richard Bradley and Chris Schmidt
A NOVA production by Lion Television and At Land Productions for WGBH Boston in association with ARTE France
Feb. 20, 2019
Weaving together archaeology, volcanology and geophysics, “The Next Pompeii” creates a vivid and thorough exploration of the tectonic activity around Naples, Italy. The NOVA documentary digs deep into the history of the city to uncover current geological threats to the region and warn locals about the possibility of a future volcanic disaster. While Vesuvius destroyed ancient Pompeii, a lesser known volcano called Campi Flegrei has the potential to be far more destructive than its more famous neighbor, endangering millions of residents in and around Naples. Scientists have enhanced a system of sensors designed to provide early warning of an eruption and have added an innovative wrinkle — a warning sensor that uses the ripples of sound created constantly by sea waves crashing ashore to probe the three-dimensional structure of molten rock beneath Campi Flegrei. Not only does the video serve as an important warning to the people of Naples, it also emphasizes the immense power volcanic activity can hold over human civilization. “This film focuses our attention on Naples and its dangerous location between two active volcanoes that threaten nearly four million people,” said Larry Engel, associate professor at American University's School of Communication. “The film has beautiful imagery as well as fantastic animation of the underground workings of volcanoes.” Chris Schmidt, executive producer for NOVA, said the award “honors the creativity and hard work of the producers who brilliantly recognized an opportunity to re-examine the classic story of Pompeii and Vesuvius as a way of understanding the risk posed today by the largely unknown volcano under Naples.”
Henry Fraser, Carlo Massarella and Dan Kendall
Windfall Films (United Kingdom)
Produced for Smithsonian Networks and the BBC, in association with NHK, Canal+ and Welt24
“How to See a Black Hole: The Universe’s Greatest Mystery” April 10, 2019 on BBC Four
“Black Hole Hunters” April 12, 2019 on Smithsonian Channel
The Windfall Films documentary followed the Event Horizon Telescope team as they captured the first-ever image of a black hole. The video spans two years, telling the inside story of the final moments of a decade-long project as it occurred in real time.
The project combined eight radio telescopes from around the world, including the South Pole, to make a synchronized, planet-wide telescope capable of observing radio emissions associated with black holes. Based on theory and observations, the existence of black holes — from which no light can escape — has long been accepted by scientists. But the Event Horizon Telescope was designed to definitively prove their existence and provide convincing visual evidence. The research team, led by Shep Doeleman of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, needed powerful supercomputers, specialized software and extremely accurate clocks for accommodating time differences among the various telescopes. There were no guarantees of success. “It’s rare these days to see a film whose ending is not known, whose journey is uncertain,” American University’s Engel said. “We witness the ups and downs, successes and failures of science as the cameras are rolling during the short window of opportunity. It’s a refreshing and authentic view of scientists and their passion.” Director Henry Fraser said it was clear that the first image of a black hole “would be a global sensation.” He said it was “especially important to do the science justice as well as showcase the remarkable human endeavor these scientists achieved.”
Rory Galloway and Geoff Marsh
BBC Radio 4
April 2, 2019
Is time experienced differently by different animals? Are squirrels, tortoises and pesky flies literally living their lives at different speeds than us? Such questions were at the heart of “A Sense of Time,” a delightful look at the physiology of time perception by different species, with a dollop of philosophy thrown in for good measure. Research has shown that animals do experience life at different temporal resolutions, with humans seeing the world at 60 frames per second and some insect species seeing it at as fast as 400 frames per second. Such abilities allow birds to catch flies in flight, and flies to dodge being swatted with newspapers, presenter Geoff Marsh told his listeners. He explores the mind of a bat with neurobiologist Yossi Yovel in Israel and dissects birdsong at super-slow speeds with researchers at the University of Maryland. The speed of the broadcast audio was varied to help bring listeners into the experiences being described. Judge Janet Raloff, editor of “Science News for Students,” said the program “felt fast paced and interesting throughout. And I loved the use of sound — the bird song at different rates and the interviewer’s voice at different paces — to convey a sense of what was at issue.” Marsh and producer Rory Galloway, self-described “zoology nerds,” said the program resulted from their long-standing argument over whether a fly might experience time faster or slower than humans. “Audio is the perfect tool to play with our experience of time, and to take us into the minds of different species,” they said. “Slowing down the calls of different species in the studio is mesmerizing, and we knew we had to uncover what these animals were hearing themselves.”
Andrew Luck-Baker, Kevin Fong, Rami Tzabar and Chris Browning
BBC World Service
“Thirteen Minutes to the Moon” (podcast and radio series)
June 10, 2019
June 17, 2019
July 1, 2019
In three episodes of a 12-part podcast and radio series about the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, the BBC team used archival materials and extensive new interviews to explain the technology and engineering advances that made the mission a success. They described in exquisite detail the design and development of the “fourth astronaut,” the 70-pound onboard flight computer that made everything possible and which also presented some daunting last-minute challenges for mission controllers and pilot Neil Armstrong as the Eagle lander rapidly approached the lunar surface. The producers described the crucial work of Margaret Hamilton in making sure the computer’s core memory was “absolutely bulletproof robust,” an obsession from which emerged a new discipline called software engineering that Hamilton is credited with inventing. “I began to get fascinated by errors because there were no tools for finding them,” Hamilton told the BBC producers. “We’d try to understand the errors and find new ways not to let them ever happen again.” The episode on the lander’s descent to the moon captures the drama as computer alarms sounded, connections between the orbiting lunar module, the Eagle lander and mission control dropped out, the Eagle was found to be moving faster than expected, and fuel was running low. Judge Naomi Starobin, radio general manager for WHYY in Philadelphia, praised the “great use of archival audio to recreate the drama and the technical details of the event.” Presenter Kevin Fong said: “We felt it was important to be able to tell that story definitively, through the witness accounts of the scientists and engineers who are now mostly in their 80s. Those contributors were very generous with their time and gifted story tellers in their own right; we are delighted on their behalf to have gained this recognition for our joint endeavor.”
June 25, 2019
Oct. 29, 2019
Aug. 15, 2018
Begley described how the dogmatic belief that beta-amyloid deposits cause Alzheimer’s disease has stymied research into other possible explanations of the disease, including inflammation and infection. Several scientists said those who controlled the Alzheimer’s research agenda were a “cabal” that influenced what studies were published in top journals, which scientists got funded, who got tenure and who received invitations to speak at scientific conferences. George Perry, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas–San Antonio, told Begley that scientists who didn't go along with the amyloid hypothesis “became roadkill on the highway to nowhere.” Begley wrote that “the amyloid camp was neither organized nor nefarious” and that the researchers believed their work would lead to an effective Alzheimer’s drug. It has not turned out that way, however, and one researcher told Begley that “we would be 10 or 15 years ahead of where we are now” if it were not for the focus on amyloid as the only appropriate drug target. In her reporting, Begley looked at the work of an outsider, Robert Moir of Massachusetts General Hospital, who bucked the prevailing theory. She also noted there is a growing amount of research into non-amyloid interventions. Judge Maggie Fox, a long-time medical correspondent for Reuters and NBC News, called Begley’s entry “an important and courageous series.” Richard Harris, science correspondent for NPR, said Begley’s stories offered “an important window into how the institution of science really works.” Begley said she had long heard grumblings that Alzheimer’s researchers who deviated from the dominant hypothesis struggled for funding and recognition. “None would offer specific examples or correspondence documenting this,” she said, “but finally I got lucky, finding well-respected scientists who had experienced this treatment and were willing to talk about it in detail.”
May 9, 2019
Nicholas Kusnetz described the painstaking work of biologist Chris Ray who has been tracking the American pika, a fist-sized denizen of the western mountains of the United States, for more than 30 years. It is “one of the longest-running research projects of one of the West’s most adorable creatures,” Kusnetz wrote. He added, “The rabbit relatives are highly sensitive to temperature changes. They live high in the mountains, where temperatures are warming faster than the global average. And because pikas occupy a habitat that's critical to life across the West — mountain snowmelt is the primary source of water for the farms and cities that have fueled the region's growth — pika research may have a lot to say about our own future, too.” Better climate models give more accurate forecasts of a warmer future, Kusnetz noted, but there remains tremendous uncertainty about what the warming will mean for critical ecosystems. Will they evolve over time? Could they suddenly collapse? Part of this uncertainty, according to biologist Ray, is that even after decades of research, scientists still have only glimpses into the inner workings of complex ecosystems. But part of it may also be that the climate is changing so fast now, it’s hard to keep up. Judge Larisa Epatko, a freelancer and former reporter-producer for the PBS NewsHour, said Kusnetz’s story was “solidly reported and written, with good supporting visuals.” Kusnetz said that climate change “is so all-encompassing and uncertain that I’m always looking for ways to make the story specific and concrete. I set out to tell the bigger story of what climate change is doing to the Mountain West by focusing on one researcher who is studying one vulnerable animal, the pika, which happens to also be extremely cute.”
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
Lindsay Patterson, Marshall Escamilla and Sara Robberson Lentz
Tumble Science Podcast for Kids
April 5, 2019
January 11, 2019
“Why do seals have whiskers?” wondered six-year-old Karah from Baltimore, Maryland. In “The Science of Whiskers,” the Tumble Science Podcast for Kids team was determined to find out. They interviewed “whisker scientist” Robyn Grant and explored how animals use whiskers “just like we use our senses to navigate our world.” Their second award-winning podcast on “The Cave of the Underground Astronauts” adopted the same sense of curiosity, with the podcast team interviewing archaeologists working in a subterranean cave in South Africa. The “underground astronauts” Skype in from 30 meters underground to discuss everything from the “superman’s crawl” they use to enter the cave to the fossilized remains of the ancient human relative Homo naledi discovered in the cave six years ago. “The originality and creativity that went into these two pieces is remarkable,” said Christine Dell’Amore, a National Geographic editor. “These podcasts taught kids a ton about science in a fun and engaging way.” Lindsay Patterson said Tumble's mission is “to improve science literacy for younger generations, by telling engaging stories about how science actually works.” She added, “Receiving this award is a sign that our style of storytelling really works to communicate to kids the curiosity, excitement, and adventure that drives the scientific process.”
Science News for Students (online magazine)
February 7, 2019
In her winning entry, Canadian science writer Sharon Oosthoek followed efforts by scientists trying to save Hawaii’s endangered alula, a plant that once was widely used in decorative leis. She lured her readers into the story from the outset, writing: “Somewhere on a windswept cliff on the edge of the Hawaiian island of Kauai grows a plant that looks like a cabbage on a stick. It’s the last wild plant of its kind, and its exact location is a closely guarded secret.” Oosthoek described efforts by horticulturists to save that last, lonely plant by cultivating offspring in greenhouses and laboratories. They use small paintbrushes to pollinate the plants by hand. She also investigated what a pollination process confined to greenhouses means for the future of the species in the wild. “Writing about plants, especially for a kids’ audience, is a tall order,” Christine Dell’Amore said, “but Sharon’s lively, concise writing undoubtedly educated children on a subject they probably haven’t heard much about.” The story explored endangered plants as an introduction to broader ecological issues and left young readers to deliberate on the challenges. Anna Rothschild, two-time AAAS Kavli award winner and multimedia producer for the FiveThirtyEight website, said the story is “about conservation, adventure, and passion. It gives young readers a glimpse at perhaps the biggest question many environmental scientists ask themselves: Am I doing enough?” Commented Sharon Oosthoek: “When rare plant hunter Steve Perlman told me losing a species is a lot like losing a friend, I felt the emotional tug of his job. I knew then I wanted to write a piece that conveyed to our young readers not only the sound scientific reasons for protecting rare plants, but also the humanity that drives this work.”