No science writer is going to be happy with the prospect that this year’s Royal Society Science Book Prize will be the last. But there’s valid cause for concern beyond sheer self-interest.
The prize has endured several name changes during the 23 years of its existence, but its transformation from the Rhône-Poulenc Prize to the Aventis Prize in 2000 was the result of a merger of the pharmaceutical sponsor, not a genuine change of hands. When Aventis withdrew its support after 2006, however, the Royal Society gamely kept it going on a shoestring, axing the glitzy ceremony, which in some previous years had been staged with flash and dazzle among the gleaming suspended aeroplanes of the Science Museum. The financial burden was borne by Britain’s most august but scarcely most wealthy scientific institution only on the understanding that a new sponsor had to be found within three years. Now that all such attempts have run aground, the prize looks doomed.
It’s a mystery why this should be so—why some science-based multinational (or even a coffee company—we’re not proud) has not deemed it worth the very modest outlay to have its name emblazoned across the front of several bestsellers in the still burgeoning popular-science market. You might think that having your brand associated with such luminaries as past winners Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson, Roger Penrose, Stephen Jay Gould and Steve Jones would be worth somebody’s dollar.
And this is a further kick in the teeth to the professional science writers who are often the prize’s mainstay (if not the winners), after they have already lost their annual awards from the Association of British Science Writers for lack of a sponsor. (A token revival happened this year, but in pitifully minimal form.) It’s true that no one owes science writers a living, let alone a sop to their vanity. But the message this sends out to the profession—that what they do is not valued—is dispiriting. They’d even forgo the prize money; it’s the recognition that counts.
The quality of public discourse about science has surely benefited from the way both the academic and journalistic science writers have raised the bar on the quality of communication. Without the book prize, there…