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Against the Schmidt Awards

Who could be against giving awards for excellence (accompanied by five-figure sums) in science communication and journalism — especially to young and previously unrecognized scientists and journalists?

I’ll take a shot.

ICYMI: The National Academies Eric and Wendy Schmidt Awards for Excellence in Science Communications will give out $600,000 later this year to 24 science journalists and research scientists “who have developed creative, original work that addresses issues and advances in science, engineering, and/or medicine for the general public.”

Funded by Schmidt Futures (a foundation started by Google co-founder Eric Schmidt and Wendy Schmidt), the $600k will be given out to 24 $20,000 award winners and six $40k award winners, all in six submission categories: best science reporting by a freelancer, by an early career journalist, and at the local/regional level and communication by research scientists by graduate students, early career researchers, and mid-career to later career researchers.

“The pandemic has tragically reminded us that science communication is often as important as science itself,” says a quote on the awards landing page from Marcia McNutt of the National Academies of Sciences, which is administering the awards. “It takes great skill to effectively communicate the wonder and complexity of science, engineering and medicine, and we hope these new awards will not only recognize such talent, but also help nurture the new generation of leaders in science journalism and communication.”

But isn’t nurturing that new generation of leaders the point? And isn’t “hope” is a flimsy mechanism for that widespread nurturing, especially if one’s institution is a national academy of sciences or a leading science foundation?

We should recognize talent and reward achievement. And $20k or $40k will mean a tremendous amount to younger winners. But putting the National Academies and Schmidt Futures together makes one…well, hope for bigger things. Game-changing initiatives. And of all the things the academy and the foundation could have done with $600k plus their combined spotlight, after-the-fact awards seem by far the least impactful — certainly for broad nurturing of the culture shifts we need to promote broader understanding of key science in the interest of the public.

Why? For one thing, because the big obstacles to broadening that understanding won’t be overcome by supporting more science reporters — not in a world that isn’t hiring them or reading/watching/listening to science reporting. And not in a world where science journalism spends most of its time overhyping overframed studies or chasing down stories best suited to be admired by other media — a pernicious public misinformation ecosystem in which you’ll way too often find both really good science journalists and really good scientist communicators plying their trades.

Also: The big obstacles to broadening understanding of key science in the interest of the public won’t be overcome by rewarding scientist communicators who are already communicating. The awards ignore one of the biggest structural obstacles to science communications: the lack of institutional capacity and cultural license to allow scientists who want to spend time on communications to do so. The academy and the foundation seem to have no hypothesis for how cultivate that capacity and license within or beyond academe — certainly, none that inform the awards, which are based on the assumption that communicating science is an individualized endeavor.

Tellingly, the awards also omit from the submission pool perhaps the largest category of science communicators — professional science communicators. If we want to “nurture the next generation of leaders in science communication,” why aren’t we supporting the people who most often do the work institutionally?

The Schmidt Awards come from a world where scientists and journalists are the main conduits of science-based information. In fact, the awards lump science journalists and scientist communicators together under one big “science communication” tent. That’s a category error that will just perpetuate the misperception (still common among researchers) that journalism should aspire to be an extension of their own communication.

That misperception isn’t just wrong (any journalist will angrily tell you they aren’t a science communicator and shouldn’t be categorized as such), it’s injurious to science. The awards don’t recognize the tension and antagonism — healthy and otherwise — between science journalism and science communication — and how helping journalists doesn’t necessarily or at all help communications.

How could Schmidt Futures and the academy have better spent the $600k? One suggestion: Pilot more public science information resources (such as the Covid Tracking Project or COVID Explained) that give everyone — from media to policymakers to private-sector leaders to citizens — the latest toplines on what the evidence says on burning public questions. Such resources (for data as well as for evidence) played an invaluable role during the pandemic — and some writers continue to push these kinds of resources on their own. But we need to know so much more about how such resources can attract durable funding as well as be of maximum service to the public.

Another idea: Turn the awards into prizes — funding not for ingenious communication work that has already happened, but for communication work that can become paradigmatic for the sector. As Tim Harford points out, prizes spur advancement where sectors often fail to invest — and are an admission that the status quo has failed us.

As they stand, the Schmidt Awards are utterly status quo, even while positioning themselves to recognize and reward disruption (and co-brand themselves and their sponsor institutions with it).

You know: Awards.