By Guest Author 22/01/2021

Keana Virmani

From healthcare robots to data privacy, to sea level rise and Antarctica under the ice: in the four years since its establishment, the Aotearoa New Zealand Science Journalism Fund has supported over 30 projects.

Rebecca Priestley, receiving the PM Science Communication Prize (Photo by Mark Tantrum)

Associate Professor Rebecca Priestley, from the Centre for Science in Society at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington,  launched the fund in 2017 with money awarded from the 2016 Prime Minister’s Science Communication Prize. With more than 25 years experience as a science writer, including publishing award-winning books and writing more than 200 science columns or features for the New Zealand Listener, Priestley was keen to support other science writers and communicators to expand their work in this field.

Her intention of developing the fund was to “support journalism that highlights the science that underpins, or informs, major issues facing our society”. From the initial $5,000 prize contribution, the fund has grown to distribute nearly $100,000, as made possible by the support of a range of external funders.

In collaboration with Peter Griffin and Dacia Herbulock – former and current directors of the Science Media Centre – Rebecca developed plans for the fund as an independent source of science journalism funding in Aotearoa. From their experiences, they collectively identified the need for a fund dedicated to science journalism. Herbulock said a great challenge in pursuing science journalism was receiving “time and buy-in from editors to prioritise projects,” especially when there are greater pressing issues in the news agenda. Therefore, the development of this fund was an “opportunity to try to see the outcomes […] of seeding projects that wouldn’t happen otherwise”.

The fund is currently managed by Dr Sarah-Jane O’Connor, teaching fellow at the Centre for Science in Society and editor of SciBlogs. To date, there have been six rounds of the fund and the seventh is currently open for applications. Where external funders have provided support, rounds have been organised by theme related to that organisation’s research area. In 2020, a rapid COVID-19 round with a quick turnaround provided funds for seven journalists to expand their work on the topic. 

In each round, journalists around New Zealand are invited to pitch their own project ideas and budgets, which are later reviewed by a judging panel. The ANZSJF panel aims to select recipients of funding that represent a diverse range of perspectives and peoples, as reflected through their support for Māori talent and emerging journalists. 

The generous support of external funders – from Te Pūnaha Matatini, Ngā Rākau Taketake, to the Science Media Centre, and more* – has been crucial to the Fund’s success. These funders have supported the completion of 30 projects to date, with more in progress. The variety of themes, each with a unique focus, have pushed for greater coverage and diversity of science topics and perspectives. With over 60 applicants, there has been great interest from New Zealand’s journalism community – with many returning to apply for more than one round. 

Projects have been published in a range of media outlets, from Kaitlyn Ruddock’s interactiv Antarctica under the ice as covered by TVNZ, to Paul Gorman’s Quake South Project in the Otago Daily Times, to radio, internet and more.

A number of projects have also gone on to win awards and gain success online. A notable piece was Kate Evans’ The Price of Fish which delved into the honest truths behind fisheries in Aotearoa, leading to her win the Environmental/Sustainability award at the Voyager Media Awards in 2020. Her story was funded in April 2019, as a response to a theme funded by Te Pūnaha Matatini, ‘Science in the Public Interest.’ 

Furthermore, pieces that have gained interest on social media have worked toward bridging the gap between science in New Zealand and the wider community. A few titles include Niki Bezzant’s Baking, Biking And Bubbles: Has The Covid-19 Lockdown Made Us More Or Less Healthy? investigated the effects of lockdown on New Zealanders, Eloise Gibson’s Ups and downs of rising seas in a shaky nation looked into this pressing environmental issue and its realities, along with Jacqui Gibson’s Ngāti Kurī takes flight which explored the restoration of land by Ngāti Kurī. 

The Fund has also supported digital content, infographics, GIFs, videos and more.

Re:News, 2020.

Though the process was acknowledged by Priestley as immensely rewarding, the evolution of the Fund has come with its challenges. The Fund’s large output has been the product of time and efforts – as volunteered by Priestley, on top of her usual full time workload. 

Preistley and Herbulock also reflected upon the tensions of organisations wanting funding for a specific project in contrast with the media landscape favouring free rein and creativity. Since the fund started, there have been consistent efforts in finding this middle ground whereby both funders and recipients can be satisfied. As part of this ongoing work, we are in the midst of evaluating the Fund, including surveying funders and recipients for their views on where improvements can be made.

Applications for the current funding round close on Monday, 25 January.

*Funding has been generously provided by: Deep South National Science Challenge, Te Pūnaha Matatini, New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, Antarctica New Zealand, New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, Science Communicators’ Association of New Zealand, The Earthquake Commission, QuakeCoRE, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, NZ SeaRise Programme, Science Media Centre, ESR and Ngā Rākau Taketake.

Keana Virmani is a summer scholar at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, working on a project evaluating the ANZSJF. She has just completed her Conjoint Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology and Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. 

Featured image: Austin Distel on Unsplash