Knight Science Journalism at MIT celebrates 35th anniversary and launches the Victor K. McElheny Award
Award honors excellent coverage of science, public-health, technology, or environmental issues at the local or regional level.
"We can think of this prize as an encouragement to one of our most precious attributes: curiosity."
— Victor K. McElheny, Founding Director, Knight Science Journalism program at MIT
On Sunday, September 23 — a crisp autumn evening punctuated by a postcard-worthy sunset — MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program honored its founder, Victor K. McElheny; celebrated 35 years as one of journalism’s preeminent fellowship programs; and launched a new award to honor outstanding coverage of science, public-health, technology, or environmental issues at the local or regional level.
Some one hundred attendees gathered at MIT for the event, and McElheny, who endowed the new award, gave the evening's keynote address. His remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below. Of the award, MIT President Rafael Reif, wrote in a letter: “That future generations will associate the name Victor K. McElheny with excellence in science journalism makes me – and all of MIT – extremely proud.”
Keynote Address by Victor McElheny
35th Anniversary of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT
23 September 2018
Thank you, Deborah Blum, Nate Nickerson, and Paula Apsell. I am most grateful for the greeting from President Reif, and tremendously grateful to all of you for joining in such an affirmative moment.
It is wonderful, as we celebrate the 35th anniversary of MIT’s Knight fellowships for proven, ambitious science journalists, to take on a new responsibility. That is to offer a new prize recognizing achievement in local and regional coverage of the discoveries and inventions of our world, and the impacts of new knowledge and new capabilities. We can think of this prize as an encouragement to one of our most precious attributes: curiosity.
New insights and new tools often bring unexpected challenges, even potential threats to humanity. As citizens in a dynamic world of science, medicine, and engineering, we have a continuing, even desperate, need for clear narratives and explanations of what is going on. Nowhere are these needs clearer than in a city, a county, or a region, where science and technology are vital to both prosperity and safety. Nowhere is the need for reportorial excellence and imagination greater.
Excellence in local and regional reporting
I was lucky enough to encounter these local and regional issues early in my work as a science journalist in Florence, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina. This began in 1957, the year of Sputnik, and the threat of an Asian flu epidemic, and the controversies over the role of cholesterol in heart disease and cigarette smoking in lung cancer. These were not just national and global themes. They were urgent topics for everything from forests to factories in a region that was determined to develop economically while also struggling with ending the inherently unequal system of racially segregated schools.
Events like the Soviet launch of Sputnik suddenly heightened consciousness of the importance of science in our lives, and forced people to think more sharply about how students could learn more about science to prepare for the future. Charlotte saw an immediate need to rethink its school science teaching. People started struggling over the direction of the local science museum.
A broader concern about America’s strength in science not only favored the training of many more scientists, doctors, and engineers, but also forced the academic community to do more to inspire and train public communicators of science. Columbia University started a mid-career program for science journalists, and Harvard’s Nieman program created a spot for one science writer among its usual crew of American and foreign reporters.
The 1983 inaugural class of Knight Science Journalism Fellows at MIT, with founding director Victor McElheny, fourth from left. Photo: KSJ@MIT archives
"I have every confidence that the public’s need for straight talk about what science and technology are doing to us — and for us — will grow rapidly in the future. The fact-gathering and the story-telling are going to have to be very good to be heard amid the noise of our modernity."
I held one of those Nieman slots in 1962-63, when many scientists were pushing hard to control the nuclear arms race. Many people were also concerned to harness science to speed the economic development of poor countries in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. So, I took courses bearing on how science could push human health and prosperity forward. And I went on for two decades to cover several large scientific and engineering enterprises in a number of countries on both sides of the Atlantic.
A highly suitable host
Today, those issues, in such fields as food, energy, transportation, and information are even more evident, and playing out on a vaster scale. The human population now has more than doubled to 7.5 billion, and humanity’s use of resources has grown even faster. We have a deeper sense of humanity as one species among the millions that we share our planet with. The need for excellence in describing that world seems so much sharper than before, and the number of exciting stories seems so much larger than half a century ago.
Thus, it seemed quite natural in the 1980s to engage MIT as a highly suitable host for journalists who had grown to love describing technical matters in everyday language and vivid images and sound. The aim was for them to spend a year building their skills, contacts, and confidence for a long future of intense, even wild change. And, with the sustained understanding of MIT leaders at many levels, we were lucky to find supportive partners in the Sloan, and Mellon Foundations, and, for the long haul, with the Knight Foundation.
The Fellows themselves and their numerous contacts among the faculty — not only in their own labs but in seminars for the group — were building an environment for mutual support and learning. As the Fellows thought through the directions they would follow in the years ahead, they were also building their future usefulness as consultants on science and engineering to their fellow reporters and editors in both traditional and novel channels of journalism.
The public's need for straight talk
Discovery and invention, obviously, are often highly arcane and spiritual activities, but they also affect in many ways how people cope with their daily lives and build their futures, not only in preserving their health but also in mastering the tools they use in work. Economic issues related to science and technology, including people’s needs to constantly re-educate themselves, have become much more evident than they were 50 years ago, and they often provide an extra pathway to telling a story that editors and news directors will want to have told.
I have every confidence that the public’s need for straight talk about what science and technology are doing to us — and for us — will grow rapidly in the future. The fact-gathering and the story-telling are going to have to be very good to be heard amid the noise of our modernity. I’m hoping that KSJ’s new prize for excellence in local and regional science reporting will inject some of the needed energy. My wife Ruth and I are very proud to be part of this effort.
News: Knight Science Journalism Program Celebrates 35 Years
Knight Science Journalism at MIT
Program in Science, Technology, and Society
About the Victor K. McElheny Award
The award will honor work during a given year, beginning in 2018. The submissions portal will open on December 1, 2018.
Current KSJ Fellows
KSJ Leadership and Staff
Truth. Beauty. Science.
A digital magazine exploring the intersection of science and society
A spectacular sunset began soon
after McElheny's keynote address.