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Sagas of science and society

An African-American chemist's ascent to success, the often-frustrating quest for fertility, the ins and outs of genetic screening and the local effects of global climate change are among the subjects covered in this year's crop of award-winning science sagas, as selected by the National Association of Science Writers.

NASW says its Science in Society Journalism Awards recognize "innovative reporting that goes well beyond the research findings and considers the associated ethical problems and social effects." The winners, who were chosen by a panel of their peers, will be honored on Oct. 26 during the association's annual meeting in Palo Alto, Calif. This year's awards carry a cash prize of $2,500.

I was lucky enough to win one of the 2002 Science in Society awards for my genetic genealogy tale, and since then I've served on the judging committee a couple of times (but not this year). Take a look at this year's stand-outs:

  • Books:"Everything Conceivable," by Washington Post Magazine feature writer Liza Mundy, examines assisted reproduction technologies and their often-unexpected ramifications. "Even people who think they are really up to date on these issues are going to be very surprised," one judge said. Another said the book documented trends that are "as baffling as they are unknown."
  • Periodicals (magazines and newspapers):"The Match," a five-part series by Newsday reporter Beth Whitehouse, traces the case of a girl suffering from a rare blood disorder - and her family's controversial quest to cure her. The series appeared in the newspaper Sept. 30-Oct. 4, 2007. "This is such a wonderful example of what a newspaper can do in a very personal way," one of the judges said. "To take a single story, a single family, and turn it into a symbol of this entire debate over prenatal genetic screening."
  • Electronic media (TV, radio, Internet):"Forgotten Genius," a TV documentary that first aired on PBS on Feb. 6, 2007, chronicles the life of Arican-American chemist Percy Julian. Writer/producers Stephen Lyons and Llewellyn M. Smith share the award. One of the judges said the show is "one of the few docudramas that actually blends documentary with the drama and really grips the viewer." In addition to the latest honor, "Forgotten Genius" has won a Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • Honorable mention: NPR's "Climate Connections" is a series of 170 stories that document how humans around the world are addressing - or failing to address - the challenge of global warming. The judges said they were impressed by NPR's "incredible commitment of resources." Editor/correspondents Alison Richards and David Malakoff share the honors.

In all, 155 works were entered in this year's competition.

"I think the quality of all the entries showed that science journalism is alive and well, but we should not take that for granted," one of the judges, Madeleine Jacobs of the American Chemical Society, said in NASW's news release. "In this era of very short attention spans and dwindling resources for journalism, we are blessed that we still have publishers that are willing to commit the resources to ensure that the public learns about these extremely important issues."