Erna Akuginow and Geoffrey Haines-Stiles

2013 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism Winner

Filmmakers Erna Akuginow and Geoffrey Haines-Stiles received the Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 11 December 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. Akuginow and Haines-Stiles were honored for more than 30 years of pioneering documentary films and television series that explore Earth and space sciences with remarkable breadth and depth and astute perception of what’s new, important, and fascinating in science. Early on, Haines-Stiles served as a senior producer of Carl Sagan’s 1980 Cosmos series, and Akuginow served as an associate producer on another Sagan series about the nuclear arms race, intended as a sequel to Cosmos. Since then, the duo has collaborated on numerous exceptional films and television shows, ranging from tales of space missions to Mars and Pluto to coverage of polar research, including Live from Antarctica, the first interactive broadcast from the South Pole, to the 2012 PBS series on climate science and sustainable energy sources Earth: The Operators’ Manual. The award also recognizes Akuginow and Haines-Stiles for contributing to excellence in science communication through extraordinary opportunities they created for scientists and general audiences to share knowledge and excitement about science in events the filmmakers organized in museums or other venues and on social media.


From Cosmos to Mars and Pluto and back home, Geoffrey Haines-Stiles and Erna Akuginow have invested their careers reporting the best modern science in novel, compelling, and accessible ways through documentaries, live events, print, and new media. They are outstanding recipients of the AGU Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism.

Cosmos with Carl Sagan was for many people the introduction to science, with numerous awards and nearly 1 billion cumulative views worldwide. Geoff was a senior producer and one of five series directors, and Erna worked with Sagan on the planned commercial sequel Nucleus.

Perhaps Geoff and Erna’s most enduring contribution is the seven-hour 1991 PBS/UKChannel-4 series Childhood, with cameras in schools and homes for months on end documenting child development in the United States, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and the Cameroon rainforest. Although not strictly “geophysical,” Childhood helps us understand where geophysicists, and everyone else, come from. The resulting 24-part telecourse remains in use today. One child seen being born during the first program had a classmate studying her first moments of life in a course at New York University!

Geoff and Erna followed Cosmos with the wonderful Creation of the Universe, hosted by Tim Ferris, with Stephen Hawking speaking in his own voice for the last time on TV and Nobelists Murray Gell-Mann, Abdus Salam, and Sheldon Glashow. Lily Tomlin narrated a remarkably engaging Nova program on exobiology, “Is Anybody Out There?”, one of several space-themed shows from Geoff and Erna aired by WGBH/PBS. And with Live From Antarctica (featuring the first interactive broadcast from the South Pole, a major logistics event requiring National Science Foundation (NSF), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA collaboration), Live From the Rainforest, Live From the Hubble Space Telescope, Live From Mars, What Went Right, Passport to Pluto, Marsapalooza, and Polar­Palooza, the list of firsts and unique, ambitious programming goes on.

Recently, in the NSF-funded Earth: The Operators’ Manual, Geoff and Erna provided millions of PBS viewers and Web surfers with new voices—a Navy admiral, a Republican senator, ordinary marines, and west Texas ranchers—showing the dangers of climate change and the great opportunities for sustainable energy to help the economy, national security, and the environment. The independent Summative Evaluation documented the remarkable success of those “unusual suspects” reaching regular folks.

Several common threads link these efforts. Geoff and Erna engage working scientists to learn the latest advances and most exciting and important things for the public to know. They use leading communications scholarship—social psychology as well as ­film-­making artistry—to craft ways to share this science most effectively. They find the technically best people to generate compelling video, audio, animations, and print resources. And, as media evolve, they stay ahead, adding Twitter and Facebook to TV and live presentations.

More than a generation of the general public owes a debt of gratitude to Geoff and Erna. Their creativity, intellect, and dedication helped attract many of the current generation of scientists, whereas numerous “bench researchers” who participated in projects such as Polar­Palooza gained a stronger commitment to public outreach. For this and more, our whole community owes them thanks.

—RICHARD ALLEY, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.


Thanks to AGU and our citationist, Richard Alley, for this joint award to Erna and myself. While it is, of course, personally gratifying, we also consider it an acknowledgement that “science journalism” has broadened out from print to include video in all forms—from PBS primetime to YouTube anytime—and also social media and spoken-word presentations. We’re pleased that this is one more way in which AGU is validating the participation of its members in all forms of public outreach. We’re gratified that our efforts in this regard have been supported by NSF, NASA, and NOAA, among other government agencies, and are happy to acknowledge their “priceless” role as funders. As one of our current collaborators, former NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati, likes to say, “The science isn’t done until it’s shared”…and there are more and more ways in which that sharing can be done.

As Richard’s kind remarks indicate, we’ve experimented with many varying techniques over the years, from “classic” broadcast series such as Cosmos to taking scientists—and engineers—from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the road for Marsapalooza to participate in amazing ­community-based events like one at the New York Aquarium where members of the Mars Exploration Rover team let a very diverse 3000­person audience from the neighborhood literally get their hands on a parachute, wheel, and solar panel used in testing Spirit and Opportunity. We found that taking this same kind of in­person presentation, supported by high­definition video, on the road during the International Polar Year worked just as well in Brazil, China, and Australia as in the 25 communities we visited with Polar­Palooza across the United States.

And while we feared that “sustained achievement” implied a lifetime award that made retirement the next logical step, we’re actively involved in several new projects, every one of which always gets vastly enriched by participating in the amazing science slugfest that is an AGU Fall meeting. Waleed is to be our host for “The Crowd and the Cloud,” how citizen science and low-cost sensors can help empower communities to contribute to “Big Science” in order to address the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. “The Year of Pluto” will see several programs and online opportunities around NASA’s New Horizons mission to the Pluto system, arriving on 14 July, Bastille Day, 2015. Mission principal investigator Alan Stern hopes Pluto will turn out to be perhaps one of the most active planets (yes, planets) in the solar system. And “The Return of the PHOENIX” will look at contemporary science in China in the light of Joseph Needham’s epochal series of books in the ongoing Science and Civilisation in China (yes, the U.K. spelling) series.

As you can see from Richard’s citation, Erna and I have been involved in making science media for several decades, but working with “bench” researchers—many of whom are active AGU members—and helping them open up their cutting-edge work, including their personal hopes and emotions, to the broader public has always energized us and kept us active. Making science programs has taken us to all seven continents and both poles and has been a deeply satisfying life course. Trained respectively as a literature major and historian, both Erna and I have found Earth and space science when properly communicated something of interest to just about everyone, and we’ve been delighted to be part of both “old” and “new” media. We hope this year’s Cowen Award will be seen by AGU members as further encouragement to say yes when producers and journalists come calling so that research can further permeate and enrich our culture. Or, perhaps, to generate their own in-house efforts using the explosion of new technologies and distribution networks. More “sustained contributions to science journalism,” please, and not just by journalists. Let a thousand stories bloom! Thanks again, Richard and AGU, for this distinct honor, but—to paraphrase the Pythons—I hope we’re not done yet!

—GEOFFREY HAINES-STILES, Passport to Knowledge/GHSPi, Morristown, N. J., on behalf of himself and ERNA AKUGINOW, Passport to Knowledge/GHSPi, Morristown, N. J.