The Max Perutz essay prize is in its 14th year and is a major landmark on the science writing landscape. To enter the competition MRC-funded PhD students are invited to write an essay:
in no more than 800 words, to tell us about your research in a way that would interest a non-scientific audience. Why is it important? Why does it interest you? Why should it interest the reader?
I was lucky enough to attend the award ceremony recently, held in the palatial premises of the Royal Society in London.
Science Minister David Willetts was present for a while and he spent time talking to each of the shortlisted writers. Unluckily for us he was called away to a vote in the House of Commons and so we did not get to hear his thoughts on the competition, but the report of the event on the MRC website helpfully reveals his thoughts on why the competition was important:
Communicating research effectively is a vital skill for any scientist.
MRC Chief Executive Sir John Savill explained that the competition supported an important element of the MRC’s mission, viz. “to promote dialogue with the public about medical research”. He went on to briefly detail Max Perutz’s career and introduced Professor Robin Perutz, Max’s son, who then took the floor. He came across as an engaging and very entertaining speaker. He read excerpts from two letters written by his father to Harold Himsworth, an earlier chief of the MRC. The first was from 1953, highlighting a recent paper from his Unit on the structure of DNA; the second was from 1956, highlighting the first report that a point mutation could cause disease. Both letters gently and skilfully pointed out the benefits of MRC continuing to support Max Perutz’s Cambridge research unit.
Professor Perutz also read some excerpts from one of his father’s books Is science necessary?. He chose some brilliantly evocative and colourful pen portraits of Crick and Watson. I really must read that book, and probably also Georgina Ferry’s biography of Perutz, which got a few plugs during the evening. Later I spoke to Professor Perutz. He said he had been to his father’s lab many times as a youngster and his father talked to him a good deal about his work, sparking his interest in science. Robin Perutz is now a professor of chemistry at York University, so is following in his father’s footsteps.
Sir John Savill then had the arduous duty of presenting a certificate to each of the 12 shortlisted students, briefly outlining the subject of their essays and their institutional affiliations. They came from across the UK and across the spectrum of medical research, including mathematicians, chemists and clinicians as well as biological scientists. Four prizes were presented: two commended entries, one runner up and finally the winner…. Amy Capes from Dundee. Her essay was about trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness and it has just been published in the Guardian, along with that of the runner-up Michael Wallace, whose essaywas on statistics. Amy Capes’ PhD supervisor, Professor Ian Gilbert, who had nobly travelled down to London just for the event, was justly proud of her accomplishment. More details of the ceremony, with photos, are on the MRC website.
I used to organise the judging of a small essay competition and was interested to learn about the process used for this competition so I quizzed some of the MRC staff involved in the first round of judging. There were well over 100 entries so there were two rounds of judging. Judging was done blind, which doesn’t mean they read the essays in Braille, but that the essays were anonymised to ensure that judges had no knowledge of the authors’ names, institutions or regions. The initial panel of judges (drawn from the MRC communications team) first selected a long list of 40 essays between them and then through further discussion they whittled it down to a shortlist of 12. These 12 were read by the final judging panel, including Sir John Savill, Alok Jha from the Guardian and the author Georgina Ferry, and the winners were chosen.
All of those shortlisted were invited to London for the award ceremony and also to a writing masterclass with Georgina Ferry, held earlier in the day. The masterclass provides an opportunity for the authors to make further improvements to their essays prior to publication. I think all shortlisted essays will be published in due course.
All entrants are given feedback on their essay, and the shortlisted 12 get very detailed feedback. Since all the judges are experienced science writers this I can imagine this is very useful. The thought and organisation that goes into the competition is admirable. Next year’s Max Perutz competition will open in May 2012.
It did occur to me that at 800 words the essays would make admirable blog posts, and perhaps the shortlisted essays could be hosted as guest posts on suitable blogs. As so much of science writing today is about the online world, perhaps competitions like this should give a nod in that direction. It will be interesting to see what the Wellcome Trust essay prize does with its winners when they are announced next month. Maybe some prominent blog platforms should take an interest in the world of writing competitions, giving aspiring writers a helping hand up?