NSF invests in literary science journalism

Creative nonfiction program seeks emerging writers

The National Science Foundation (NSF) doubled down on literary science journalism this year. Actually, it quintupled down.

In 2010, NSF gave $50,000 to faculty members at Arizona State University to lead a course on covering science and innovation policy with “creative nonfiction” for 12 writers/communicators and 12 scholars/researchers. This year, the foundation gave the project $250,000 for an expanded program whose goal is to teach participants to use “narrative, scene and storytelling” to engage general readers and audiences.

“Creative nonfiction provides a more experienced, broader, more widely defined presentation of nonfiction prose than traditional journalism programs,” said Lee Gutkind, a doyen of the style and one of the course’s two directors. “We believe narrative is as important as substance. The way in which the substance (reportage) is presented is key to the impact our work will make, communicating an understanding of science and policy, changing lives, etc.”

“To Think, To Write, To Publish,” as the course is called, seeks emerging communications professionals (writers, bloggers, filmmakers, poets, museum educators, etc.) at the early stages of their careers, as well as non-tenured, PhD-level scholars from public and private institutions. In 2010, they came together for a two-day workshop and another daylong event. This time, it’ll be two four-day workshops—in October and May 2013. The deadline to apply is June 15—next week.

Members of each discipline pair up to research and write a literary-style article or essay about science and innovation policy, which an eye toward publishing it in a major outlet. Expanding on the first program, this year’s teams will be working with a wider variety of experienced editors from publications such as National Geographic, Publisher’s Weekly, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and Creative Nonfiction.

Age makes no difference, according to Gukind, but he wants communicators with different backgrounds. “The best way to do these workshops is to make certain that there’s a balance in experience and knowledge among all participants,” he said. “Last time, we had people applying who had been writing about science for many years, published many books, who wanted to learn narrative, change careers, or have an interesting experience. But we decided we could make the most impact on emerging communicators in science and policy, so that is how we determined our qualifications.”

Four of the twelve teams from the 2010 program published stories in Issues in Science and Technology, a quarterly publication of the National Academies and the University of Texas at Dallas, and two of the writers went on to launch a science blog, Bittel Me This, and a creative nonfiction webzine, Beyond the Bracelet.

Issues in Science in Technology is an interesting publication. An editor’s note emphasizes that:

Although Issues is published by the scientific and technical communities, it is not just a platform for these communities to present their views to Congress and the public. Rather, it is a place where researchers, government officials, business leaders, and others with a stake in public policy can share ideas and offer specific suggestions.

Unlike a popular magazine, in which journalists report on the work of experts, or a professional journal, in which experts communicate with colleagues, Issues offers authorities an opportunity to share their insights directly with a broad audience. And the expertise of the boardroom, the statehouse, and the federal agency is as important as that of the laboratory and the university.

The articles from Gutkind’s program—which critiqued work on modular nuclear reactors, perennial crops, nanotechnology and synthetic biology, and environmental pollution—certainly had no problem with scientific boosterism.

“Drowning in data,” by Gwen Ottinger, who studies environmental justice at the University of Washington, Bothell, and Rachel Zurer, an assistant editor at Backpacker Magazine, was an engaging first-person narrative about Ottinger’s frustration with the lack of data on the impact chemical pollution has on public health in certain communities. The story was a significant contribution to the field of toxics coverage, which tends to focus on air, water, and soil monitoring, but overlooks epidemiological data.

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.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,