Last autumn I had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremonies for two science writing prizes. They are similar competitions but have individual characteristics and constraints: the Max Perutz prize is sponsored by the MRC, which is a taxpayer-funded organisation and a distant branch of government; the Wellcome Trust prize is sponsored by Wellcome, an independent charity.
The Wellcome Trust competition is open to anyone, with one category for scientists of postgraduate level and above and another category for those with a non-professional interest in science, including undergraduate students. It attracted nearly 800 entries across the two categories. The MRC competition is more narrowly focused, restricted to MRC-funded PhD students, and attracted something like 150 entries.
The Wellcome prize was new in 2011 and they put in a good deal of work in advance to make sure the world knew that it had arrived. The prize is sponsored by The Guardian and The Observer newspapers and during the spring The Guardian ran a series of articles on science writing, penned by some of the best science journalists and bloggers in the UK. As well as providing useful tips to those thinking of entering, it made sure that the competition was highly visible. Wellcome shortlisted 15 entries in each of the two categories and awarded a prize to the winner of each category. All of those shortlisted were invited to attend a workshop on the business of writing, given by science writers from the Guardian, from the Wellcome Trust and Occam’s Typewriter’s very own Stephen Curry, who blogged about it at the time.
The Max Perutz science writing prize has been going for 14 years. It is publicised widely through MRC’s own channels. The MRC website has some condensed advice on science writing, digested from past competition judges.The judges shortlisted 12 entries and awarded first, second and third prizes. Again all of those shortlisted were invited to attend a workshop, given by Georgina Ferry on writing skills, helping them to further improve their essays.
The awards ceremonies were both impressive but quite different in character. MRC’s was held in the imposing setting of the Royal Society, a grand house in the style of a palazzo; Wellcome’s was held in the equally imposing surroundings of the Wellcome Collection, amidst the museum displays. Whereas Wellcome seemed to aspire to create the glitzy atmosphere of a celebrity awards ceremony, the MRC’s more intimate event felt like a school prize giving.
The Wellcome ceremony was packed with science writers and science bloggers, including celebrities like our own Jenny, Richard and Stephen. There was food and drink aplenty, ensuring a good time was had by all. We were addressed by Sir Mark Walport, chief of the Wellcome Trust, by a journalist (Alok Jha) and by a comedian (Dara O Briain). The actual awards were presented by Dara O Briain, with little ceremony. We didn’t learn much about the winners, let alone the other shortlisted writers, and the awarding seemed to be over very quickly. (I only discovered later that one of the winners had been a summer student in our Institute a few years back). It was almost as though the awards were a sideshow and we were all there just to party and enjoy each others’ fabulous company. All shortlisted essays are being published on the Wellcome Trust blog; the two winning essays were published in the Guardian or the Observer, and in Wellcome News.
The Max Perutz award ceremony was addressed by MRC chief executive Sir John Savill, by a scientist (Robin Perutz, Max’s son) and the science minister, David Willetts. (Well, that was the theory but in fact Willetts was called away to a vote in Parliament so we didn’t get to hear his speech. He was able to talk to the shortlisted essayists though and we were assured that he places importance on science writing.) There was a smaller crowd in attendance, and it had the feeling of a gathering of the MRC family. Robin Perutz quoted from a couple of letters his father had sent to a previous chief of the MRC; Harold Himsworth. I spoke to the PhD supervisor of the winner, who had travelled with her down from Dundee to support her. Sir John introduced each of the shortlisted writers, telling us about their background, affiliation and research area, as well as their essay topic. Each was then presented with a certificate. The winning essay was published in The Guardian and all twelve shortlisted entries were published as a PDF on the MRC website soon after the awards.
Both competitions are about science writing, aiming to build writing skills. Wellcome say their competition aims to “find the next generation of undiscovered science writing talent”. MRC says its prize is “aimed at encouraging and recognising outstanding communication”. Both competitions give potential sciecne writers a reason to exercise their skills, and provide advice for all plus some extra coaching for the most skilled. I felt that the MRC ceremony put more emphasis on personal encouragement – it was like a family celebrating the achievements of its talented youngsters and saying “Didn’t they do well!”. The Wellcome ceremony seemed to celebrate the actiivity of science writing as a whole, in effect saying “Isn’t science writing great! Come and join us!”
Both are worthy competitions and I should congratulate all the winners and those shortlisted (and I hope I get invited to the 2012 awards too!).