Science Writing Prize Shut Down

Anyone who wants to know if Campbell Newman really does intend to return Queensland to the Joh era got their answer yesterday. The closure of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards is an announcement that literature, art and indeed intellectualism are not welcome in the new, new Queensland.

I’ve got a personal stake in this, as I explained in Crikey:

Campbell Newman’s decision to shut down the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards isn’t just an attack on the arts. It is an attack on science as well.

The Queensland awards were unique in Australia in offering a prize for science writing. In other states, popular science books are eligible to enter the non-fiction awards, but seldom win. Until this year the only other major prizes for science writing were among the Eureka Prizes, but books and magazines are specifically excluded. The creation of the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing may fill the gap to some extent, but it is unclear if the Bragg judges are looking for the same thing as those in Queensland once did.

Does it matter if there is no specific prize for science writing? As a science writer I’m naturally biased, but I think it does. Popular science writing fulfils an important role in society, beyond that of many other areas of non-fiction.

Science enrolments are plunging. Even if you think that Australia’s economy should depend almost entirely on mining for our exports, we are still going to need plenty of talented geologists to find the deposits, as well as engineers to work out how to access them. This may prove difficult with fewer and fewer students seeing a reason to study physics or mathematics. If your vision for our future is a little broader, the lack of interest in science amongst high school and university students should worry you all the more. Science writing has an important role in inspiring future scientists.

A democracy in a high-tech world confronted by environmental challenges also requires a population with some level of scientific literacy. It’s not just a matter of understanding the facts about climate change or broadband, some understanding of scientific processes would be a huge assistance in weighing up competing expert claims.

It’s also fair to say that a more scientifically aware population may be less prone to buying $80 bits of plastic advertised as “building core body strength” or consuming modern snake oil.

That’s in addition to the less tangible benefits of being exposed to the beauty of scientific theorems and the nature of the universe.

Good popular science writing can address all these directly, and may stimulate an enthusiasm for science that will lead to further inquiry.

It’s hardly surprising that a party that doesn’t believe in climate change, and contains many members who’d like to see creationism taught along in preference to evolution would be particularly happy to see a prize for science writing go.

I’ll admit to a personal stake in this. In 2008 my Cool Scientist column for Australasian Science was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Science Writer Award. I lost out to Fred Watson’s Why is Uranus upside down? And other questions about the universe, but the endorsement of making the short list inspired me to revive attempts to find a publisher for a book. Without it Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists might not have been published.

I heard about the axing of the prizes while in Canberra to give two talks on scientific careers at the CSIRO Discovery Centre. The audiences confirmed my suspicions — one of the things holding back enrolments in science, and general scientific awareness, is a lack of understanding of what ordinary scientists do. People are aware that the representations of scientists in films and on TV are not very accurate, but they have little idea of what the truth really is.

Popular science writing is an important tool for addressing this, but one that, in Australia at least, will be largely without support.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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