Chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall and public television's NOVA science series will take home the National Science Board's first Public Service Awards for their efforts to improve public understanding of science and engineering. In announcing the prizes today, board chair Richard Zare applauded the winners' efforts to "reach the hearts and minds of everyday Americans."
Goodall, 64, is best known for books and TV documentaries that detail her landmark studies of chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park. In the 1960s, she shocked the primate research world with the discoveries that humankind's closest relative--long portrayed as primitive plant eaters--uses tools and hunts other monkeys for meat. Today she is an avid campaigner for animal rights, environmental education, and conservation. NOVA, which debuted in 1974 and has produced nearly 500 1-hour documentaries, has already won many major broadcasting honors.
The new prize could serve as an incentive for scientists to explain their work to the public, says Albert Cotton, a chemist at Texas A&M University in College Station who serves on the science board, the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) governing body. If scientists communicate better, Cotton says, they may be able to rally taxpayer support for research funding. "If the motivation is to improve the image of science at a time when the public is more fascinated with kooks and cults, then it would have been hard to make better selections."
But journalist Dan Greenberg, a longtime commentator on science politics, is skeptical that the effort will enhance science funding: "My guess is that [the prize] is part of the scientific community's delusion that the public will respond favorably and say the National Science Foundation should have more money." The awards will be handed out at a May banquet in Washington, D.C.