Robert C. Cowen

2001 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism Winner

“Robert C. Cowen was given the Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held May 31, 2001, in Boston, Massachusetts. The award honors lifetime achievement in science journalism.”


“As AGU members gather to honor Robert C. Cowen, we also thank him for honoring the Union. Bob is the recipient of the AGU Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism this year, and he has also done us the honor of permitting us to attach his name to that award. This award has been presented twice before, first in 1993 to Richard Kerr of Science and then in 1997 to David Perlman of the San Francisco Chronicle. The lineage of the award, however, traces back to AGU’s first Excellence in Science Journalism. Although that award recognizes a reporter for a single piece of work in a particular year, the first presentation was made to Walter Sullivan for his career achievements in the written communication of science and the award was named for him-just as we now name the Sustained Achievement Award for Robert C. Cowen.

“Bob Cowen started out as many of us did. He received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in meteorology at MIT just over 50 years ago. He has represented a unique part of our community ever since, using his mastery of words to build a bridge between our science and the public. Bob Cowen served on the Christian Science Monitor staff from 1950 to 1995 and continues to this day as a science correspondent for that paper. Since his retirement in 1995, Bob Cowen has contributed more than 200 news pieces that were published in the Christian Science Monitor. About 80% of them are on topics that are dear to the hearts of some or all of us. Among the titles that jump out at me are ‘Living Safely on this Vigorous Earth,’ ‘Why Moon Hits your Eye like a Big Pizza Pie,’ and ‘It Pays to Nail Down Lawn Chairs on Jupiter.’ ‘The Futile Attempt to Lock up Knowledge’ discusses the lure to the university community of industry sponsorship and the potential danger of the dominance of self-interest over collegiality; this and other similar pieces display the insight he brings to the public of the way science is done. From ‘How Much Space Science Should the U.S. Fund?’ to ‘Gravity Data Measures How Much Tucson May Bathe,’ Bob Cowen has titillated the imagination of many and kept readers of the Christian Science Monitor informed about science generally and about our sciences in particular.

“Not only has Bob contributed to society as a professional science writer, but he has also given his time as a volunteer. Since his retirement, when potential conflicts of interest were removed, he has continuously served AGU in several capacities, including that of Chair of the Public Information Committee during the 1998-2000 biennium. During his years of regular employment, he was active in the National Association of Science Writers and is a past president of that organization. He is also a founding member of the International Science Writers Association.

“Over the years, he found time to contribute as a columnist for MIT’s Technology Review and to write a book, Frontiers of the Sea: The Story of Oceanographic Research (1960). We are not the first among scientific societies to recognize Bob’s accomplishments. He has previously received the AAAS – Westinghouse Award for science journalism, the American Institute of Physics science writing award, the Grady Medal of the American Chemical Society, and a science writing award from the New England Section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“Most members of AGU are fully occupied in research, teaching or both. There are very few who have taken the skills of a teacher and researcher and the knowledge of a student of science beyond the research environment and turned them to benefit the enterprise as a whole. Bob Cowen has done so by helping to educate generations outside the ivy halls and ivory towers. He has shown many of us that our research can excite the public, and he has helped to enhance the understanding of our work in ways that has strengthened the base for the geophysical sciences.

“Madam President, I present to you Robert C. Cowen to receive AGU’s award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism, hence forward to be called the Robert C. Cowen Award in recognition of his more than 50 years of extraordinary contribution to the public understanding of science.”

—A. F. SPILHAUS, JR., AGU, Washington, D.C.


“It has been a tremendous honor-and a total surprise-to receive AGU’s Sustained Achievement Award, let alone to have it carry my name. As Dave Perlman said when we attached his name to AGU’s award for deadline science journalism, ‘it makes you wonder if you should be embalmed.’

“But seriously, I thank AGU for the honor. I thank it also for its sustained recognition of the importance of communicating the insights of science to the public, especially the insights of the geosciences that are so intimately related to human welfare. “Fifty-one years ago, I was a first-year MIT graduate student computing atmospheric momentum flows with one of those clunky old desk top calculators and wondering where the romance of science had gone. Then, out of the blue, came an invitation to revitalize science writing at the Christian Science Monitor. MIT chairman Karl Compton said to go for it. He felt promoting public understanding of science to be as important as earning an ScD. Fortunately, I had taken enough graduate courses while still an undergraduate so I could convert my nascent doctoral research on the relation between the Chandler wobble of Earth’s axis and atmospheric mass flows into a master’s thesis and make a quick exit from campus to newsroom.

“The culture shock was challenging. The learning curve steep. But with atom bomb tests and high altitude rocket probes making news, the adrenaline flow propelled a rapid metamorphosis. The clipping file shows 36 stories, an editorial, and a book review for the first 2 months on the job. Subjects ranged widely over the sciences and science policy. They included such evergreen topics as new insights into the atmosphere of Mars, concern that the climate was getting warmer, and alarm at the lack of support for basic research. A report on Langmuir’s early silver iodide cloud seeding experiments made the front page. The romance of science had returned.

“It has been a privilege to help chronicle what turned out to be a golden age for science. Interested young (and not-so-young) scientists would find science writing a rewarding alternative to an academic, civil service, or industrial career.

“It helped to have had great bosses who encouraged science writing at the Christian Science Monitor and great mentors, for whom I am eternally thankful. Among geoscientists, the latter have included Roger Revelle and Tom Malone. I’m grateful also for the love, support, and wise editorial criticism of my wife Mary, who has shared the science writing adventure for 46 years.

“And I especially want to thank those AGU members who participate in press conferences, grant interviews, and otherwise make an effort to help the news media get the story right. Your public outreach is essential to the promotion of public understanding of, and support for, science and to fulfilling AGU’s moral and legal obligation to contribute to the public good.”

—ROBERT C. COWEN, Concord, Mass.