Dan Vergano received the Perlman Award at the Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 25 May 2006 in Baltimore, Md. Vergano was honored for “The Debate’s over: Globe is warming,” which describes the linkages between the science of climate change and the complexity of technical and economic decisions facing its mitigation.
It was my privilege to nominate Dan Vergano, USA Today’s science reporter, for the 2006 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism.
This prestigious award was given for Dan’s page 1A cover story, published on 13 June 2005, entitled “The debate’s over: Globe is warming.” As the selection committee noted, Dan’s story pushed past oft-repeated arguments about the existence of global warming. He focused instead on the dawning, but almost underground, collaboration of lawmakers, leaders of industry, and scientists to address the reality of climate change.
Dan’s insightful coverage has been instrumental in establishing USA Today as an important source of science news for the newspaper’s millions of readers. USA Today’s mission has always been to present the news in the most accessible way possible, and Dan’s science coverage reflects those goals. He takes the most complex of science topics and makes it clear to readers why the subject is important and what it means to them personally.
In the case of the global warming story, Dan adroitly dissected the complexity of bringing about positive change in a turbulent political and economic climate. Without making villains of anyone, he cast a light on the divergent views that make compromise difficult, however well-intentioned the cast of characters. With a subject that is hot in more ways than one, it’s a challenge to be balanced, but Dan always plays it straight, fairly representing all sides.
Global warming is just one of the many areas of science that Dan covers. He aggressively follows all developments in space science and not just the NASA mission stories. In February, he wrote a cover story about the black holes in space, explaining why there’s a cottage industry of sorts churning out reports on the subject. When I described the story in editor’s meetings, I was greeted with blank stares, but when the story came out, many of our colleagues said they read every word. Why? Because Dan made them understand what these regions in space can reveal about the origins of the universe and the fate of our own galaxy. He brings this clarity, often with gentle touches of humor, to all the subjects he covers, from climate change and space science, to archaeology, biology, and physics.
The American Geophysical Union describes itself as a scientific community that advances the understanding of Earth and space for the benefit of humanity. Dan is truly your partner in this endeavor because he also strives to help people understand the mysteries of both Earth and cosmos. You may know that we journalists prefer to think of ourselves as hard-boiled so we don’t often throw around terms like ‘for the benefit of humanity.’ The best reporters, however, strive to better the future of humankind by spreading knowledge about the things that really matter. Dan is one of the best, and I’m grateful to you for recognizing that.
—SUE KELLY, USA Today, McLean, Va.
Any kind of praise from scientists is the secret, best hope of a science reporter, especially one always racing around on deadline, glad just to get the story into the newspaper. So I am very grateful to accept this award for deadline news writing, a particular honor in that it is named for David Perlman, a genuine science reporting icon who encouraged me when I started showing up in scientific meeting pressrooms 10 years ago. I am also honored to have won a prize that was previously awarded to Rich Monastersky, who was my science-writing mentor at Science News magazine when I was an intern there. The committee no doubt received many fine submissions, and I greatly appreciate the story being acknowledged in this way.
It should be said at the outset that even though my byline is on the story, my editor, Sue Kelly, had a huge hand in the piece, from encouraging it to watching over it during the long weekend before it appeared in the newspaper. Linda Mathews, David Colton, Owen Ullman, J. Ford Huffman, and the other front-page editors should be mentioned as well, for being willing to splash a ‘debate is over’ headline on climate change across the front page of ‘The Nation’s Newspaper.’ Less than a year later, it is surprising how provocative that seemed at the time. At least to us, if not to scientists.
It is particularly gratifying that the awards committee recognized this effort to move the popular discussion about global warming away from a recounting of the latest study or a back-and-forth argument between the usual media suspects, and toward the real debate.
Perhaps it is not surprising they noticed, because scientists have been describing this debate to reporters like me for years. Usually it came at the end of the interview, after we had finished whatever study of the moment was filling the newspaper. Typically, reporters have to move on and focus on the next story. But slowly, the real question-what are we willing to do about climate change?-is making its way into the spotlight. And we have scientists, some of whom have been pressured and harassed in attempts to silence them, to thank for the change.
Past award winners have spoken of the incredible generosity of scientists and their willingness to explain themselves to reporters and the public. And these are remarkable things. But in writing about geophysicists, geologists, atmospheric scientists, representatives of the whole gamut of geophysics, I am continually struck by the dedication of everyone involved. Many Earth scientists persevere on projects for decades. Some rappel into volcanoes, or traverse melting glaciers, or spend months away from home drilling holes into places that will never make it onto postcards. I think there is a toughness and integrity that comes from working in geophysics, a bottom-line engagement with reality, that is an admirable and much needed voice in our era. It is with humility and appreciation for your efforts that I accept this award from AGU. Thank you very much.
—DAN VERGANO, USA Today, McLean, Va.