An invaluable catalyst

The Royal Society Prize for Science Books stimulates public interest and is too important to be allowed to disappear, says Maggie Philbin

November 5, 2010

Some unsettling news: the Royal Society has not yet found a replacement sponsor for its Prize for Science Books, a prestigious competition that has run since 1988. The prize encourages the reading, writing and publication of high-quality, accessible science books. Previous winners include Robert Winston, Stephen Hawking, Bill Bryson and Jared Diamond.

I was a judge this year. Along with Tracy Chevalier, the novelist, Robin Ince, the comedian and writer, Tim Birkhead, Times Higher Education columnist and Fellow of the Royal Society, and Janet Anders, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, we spent the summer reading 137 popular science books. Eventually we settled on the winner, Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, a beautifully written book about the history of life on Earth by Nick Lane, a biochemist at University College London.

The prize-giving was a wonderful night. The audience enjoyed quizzing the shortlisted authors about science writing and the winner went down well with everyone, especially his publisher, who shrieked so loudly the chandeliers almost shattered. It was a very good night until we heard that the prize was in jeopardy.

You may wonder why a prize like this matters. After all, aren’t we awash with book prizes? There are hundreds of them. But the overwhelming majority are for fiction; there are precious few for science writing (just four internationally) and none have the prestige, popularity or news coverage of the Royal Society prize.

The competition isn’t just another chance for publishers and authors to pat each other on the back. Awards such as this are a catalyst for a broader debate about the function and the art of communicating about science.

Obviously the prize means a great deal to the shortlisted authors, who will all see more publicity, more reviews and more sales.

In some years, sales of the shortlisted books have been higher than those for the Man Booker Prize, the Costa Book Awards (formerly the Whitbread Book Awards), the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

But its disappearance would be a much bigger loss for the public – who digest the majority of their scientific knowledge in 30-second sound bites from television – and also perhaps for students in schools and universities. My fellow judge Tim Birkhead says he reads popular science books in the hope of finding better ways to educate and inspire young scientists: “I’m looking for books that are inspirational, exciting to read and very accessible. I teach biology at the University of Sheffield and I’m convinced we could teach a biology degree simply by using popular science books, particularly in the early stages when you’re trying to get students engaged and excited.”

The publicity surrounding the prize often spurs people to buy rewarding books that are both enlightening and entertaining. It allows them to engage with science and appreciate the joy, wonder and excitement of scientific discovery; and later they are able to make more informed decisions, whether it’s about a pot of face cream, climate change or government spending on science.

Our summer of reading was very revealing. Some books promised much but failed to deliver. Some with uninspiring titles and covers to frighten the horses turned out to be gems.

“The Prize for Science Books is a valuable way of highlighting books that might otherwise languish in obscurity,” says former judge and 2005 winner Philip Ball. “The prize also sends out the message that not only science writing but also science itself matters.”

It seems hard to believe that an award described as “one of the major publishing events of the year in the UK” (BBC News), “the most prestigious award in popular science writing” (The Independent) and “one of the most high-profile awards in the book business” (The Guardian) should find itself without a sponsor.

Brian Cox, the University of Manchester physicist and co-author of Why does E=mc2?: (and Why Should We Care?) – one of this year’s finalists – tweeted: “It won’t be the last, don’t worry.” And it does seem like a golden opportunity for a sponsor to align itself with such a prestigious event. But it is worth remembering that two years ago, the Royal Society Prize for Children’s Books was quietly put on hold due to lack of funds. It would be a tragedy if this happened again, simply because everyone thought that someone else would step forward.

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