In interviews, both women recommended the creative nonfiction course. Ottinger, who felt accomplished in academic writing, said it was useful to write in a different genre, which allows her to tailor the way she communicates her research findings to different audiences. Zurer said, “as a young writer just out of grad school without a ton of clips,” the experience was a validation of her skill set. While it was clear that her partner “didn’t need a ghost writer,” they came to recognize the value of their different skills and training. “I think we both benefitted from being exposed to another profession’s way of thinking,” she added.

David Guston, Gutkind’s co-director and a professor of politics and global studies at ASU, cited a variety of stories, from space exploration to genomics, which involve debates about the role of government and private industry in important scientific pursuits—the kind of issues that could benefit from the accessibility and depth that creative nonfiction aims to provide. Said Guston:

By and large the media is good at keeping up with the novelty—at covering the “newsworthiness” of science and innovation, but very poor at putting it in a broader societal context and very poor at retaining some critical distance from the hype that scientists, their universities, and their industries are promoting. The media are also poor at offering narratives about the meaning of science in society that differ from what scientists say that they are doing.

None of this would mean that the media should be “anti-science” in any way—you wouldn’t call Roger Ebert “anti-film” because he didn’t like a particular film, or a particular director, or even a whole genre. But it’s important to bring a broader array of critical perspectives to the science and innovation being done, because it is being done, like nanotechnology, to help foster “the next industrial revolution” in the words of its government sponsors. Thinking about that well takes a lot more than the views of scientists.

Wise words, which make one thankful for NSF’s investment in people who like to think, to write, and to publish.

Correction: This article has been changed to reflect that Zurer is an assistant editor at Backpacker Magazine, not a freelancer.


Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.