Raising the Alarm

The BA Festival of Science is all about communicating science--so it was appropriate that the winners of the Wellcome Trust/ New Scientist essay competition for PhD students were announced there on 7 September. The £1500 first prize went to Adrian Glover from the Natural History Museum. His article, about searching for worms in the mud of the Antarctic was published in New Scientist the same day.

The experience of runner-up Andrea Lord shows that entering such competitions can set you on the path to a new career. It was Andrea's second encounter with second place, having been runner-up in the Daily Telegraph's science writing competition last year. But, far from suffering from 'always the bridesmaid' syndrome, she's already making great strides in the direction of the full-time writing career she's determined to pursue after finishing her thesis on the stressful life of chickens. In between investigating how to measure the unhappiness of Ginger, Mac, and the other residents of Mrs Tweedie's farm, she's already had work published in the Telegraph, Independent, and a health and fitness magazine. Her advice: "Don't write an article and then try to get it published." Instead, you should get the name of the science editor of the publication you want to write for and tell them your idea.

The essay competition isn't the only writing prize sponsored by the Wellcome Trust. At the ceremony, Laurence Smaje, the Trust's Director of Medicine, Society and History, launched a new round of the book prize, which offers practising scientists the opportunity to win £25,000 to enable them to take time out to write a popular science book. Matt Ridley, who presented the essay prizes, is a scientist-turned-journalist who is currently in the popular science best-sellers list with his latest book Genome. Being able to write a punchy article doesn't automatically mean you'll produce a must-read tome. "Often people write very good books and couldn't do journalism, and vice versa," he says, but Ridley points out that book writing gives you the opportunity to "develop an argument in a way which is much more relaxing." These days it can also be financially rewarding, because "publishers are prepared to pay big advances for science books now," thanks to the upsurge in the popularity of science writing in recent years. His advice to would-be writers is to "get your mind inside the reader's mind ... know what to leave out," and never forget that you're "partly in the entertainment business."

As for essay competition winner Adrian, he has no intention of turning his back on research. "I like academic life," he says, but he hopes to do a bit of writing on the side. "Academics are underpaid ... so we all have to seek whatever other sources of income we can," he suggests. Is it really possible to combine the two? "People do it all the time in the arts," points out Matt, but suggests that the reason it's not so common among scientists is the very long hours they tend to work already. "It can be done, but it isn't easy," he warns.

Some Other Science Writing Competitions: