2004 Science-in-Society Award winners announced

December 02, 2004

Stories about the possible health and environmental dangers of nanotechnology, the ethical and moral implications of a "forgetting" drug, the quest for ways to halt the aging clock, and the legal dilemmas posed by new artificial reproductive technologies are the subjects of this year's winners of the Science-in-Society award, which is conferred by the National Association of Science Writers (NASW).

NASW holds the independent competition annually to honor outstanding investigative and interpretive reporting about the sciences and their impact on society for good or ill. The 70-year-old organization of science writers recognizes and encourages critical, probing works in six categories: newspaper, magazine, television, radio, Web and book. The award is considered the highest honor in science journalism because winners are chosen by panels of their accomplished peers and lauded for work that would not receive an award from an interest group. Expenses and prize money for the award come from the dues of NASW's roughly 2,300 members. Winners receive $1,000 and a certificate, which will be awarded February 16, 2005 at the annual meeting of NASW in Washington, D.C.

This year's winners:
TV-Noel Schwerin of Backbone Media for "Bloodlines: Technology Hits Home," a one-hour documentary on the human dramas and legal and ethical dilemmas created by new reproductive technologies (broadcast nationally on PBS). The judges congratulated Schwerin for highlighting some particularly tough cases now wending their way through the legal system concerning assisted reproduction. As many as five individual players-the egg and sperm donors, the surrogate mother, and the prospective parents-can be involved in an in vitro fertilization procedure. What happens when the expecting parents divorce and decide they no longer want a child while the surrogate is still pregnant?

Book-Stephen S. Hall for Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension (Houghton Mifflin). Hall's book delves into what is perhaps the single most contentious area of biomedical research today: manipulating human cells to give them capabilities they did not have before. But the judges also commended Hall for telling a good story with "compelling portraits of the ambitious, smart, and sometimes flawed people" involved. Merchants of Immortality is "the kind of book that creates an enduring interest in readers while also giving them the background to pursue the subject on their own," according to the judges.

Newspaper-Alexandra Witze and Tom Siegfried of The Dallas Morning News for "Science's Big Unknown," a three-part series on nanotechnology that explored its health and environmental effects. Witze and Siegfried raised questions about the safety of nanotech months before any other major media outlet, the judges noted. Yet they offered a balanced examination of the early studies indicating the possible dangers of nanometer-sized particles that can penetrate living cells easily. The series also included an intriguing essay by Siegfried putting the suspected risks of nanotechnology in perspective against the scary "gray goo" scenarios painted in fictional accounts such as Michael Crichton's thriller, Prey.

Magazine-Robin Marantz Henig for "The Quest to Forget," an article appearing in The New York Times Magazine about the ethics and practicalities of administering drugs to prevent painful memories from forming in people who have experienced a trauma. The judges praised Henig for tackling such a "unique, fascinating subject." In interviews with experts and survivors of an attack or other trauma, Henig examines whether drugs that block memories of a traumatic event can help people heal, or whether "editing out" horrible remembrances means losing the very experiences that make someone who they are.

No award is being offered this year in the radio and Web categories because the judges felt that none of the entries sufficiently fulfilled the core requirement of the Science-in-Society award, which is to explore the societal impact of science.

The members of the final judging committee were: Carol Ezzell Webb (chair), freelance; Ellen Ruppel Shell, Boston University and The Atlantic Monthly; Richard Hill, The Oregonian; Carl Zimmer, freelance; and Gareth Cook, Boston Globe. A separate books committee consisting of freelance and author Steve Olson (chair), author Mitch Waldrop, and Jennifer Couzin, a writer at Science, decided the book award recipient.

The final committee chose the other winners from among finalists screened by committees representing the other five categories. The members of the newspaper screening committee were Phil Hilts (chair), former New York Times reporter and author of Protecting America's Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation; Dan Fagin, environment writer for Newsday; and Boyce Rensberger, director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT. Broadcast entries were screened by Joe Palca (chair), National Public Radio; Don Torrance, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University; Karen Carter Mallet, director of public affairs at the Fox Chase Cancer Center; and Rob Stein of The Washington Post. The Web screening committee included Margaret Woodbury (chair), Health magazine; Steve Tally, senior science and technology writer at Purdue University; and Debra Sherman of Reuters. Magazine entries were evaluated by Adam Rogers (chair), Wired magazine; Kyla Dunn, NOVA; and Keith Haglund, Science News.

The Science-in-Society awards are administered by Diane McGurgan, executive director of NASW. The deadline for submitting entries for the 2005 awards is July 1, 2005, for work published or broadcast in North America between June 1, 2004 and May 31, 2005. Book submissions must have a 2004 copyright date. Entry forms can be found at www.nasw.org.


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