Does New Zealand need a science book prize?

On Friday last week, I noticed that the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Science Book Prize was no longer. I don’t recall ever seeing an announcement about it, but the online information about the prize now reads in the past tense, saying the prize “was a biennial book prize to encourage the writing, publishing and reading of accessible popular science books in New Zealand.”

So the Science Book Prize has gone the way of the Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing, which the Royal Society of New Zealand sponsored from 2007 to 2012, as a former prize.

I write books about science so of course I was disappointed to discover this. But there’s a good side. The same site says the Royal Society “now sponsors the General Non-Fiction category of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards”. It goes on to say that “Our decision to fund this award reflects our multi-disciplinary coverage of science, technology and the humanities”. Fair enough. But …

What does that mean for science books? If you look at the longlist of the prize the Royal Society now sponsors, it looks like only one of those books would have been eligible for the Science Book Prize, and that’s New Zealand Rivers: an environmental history by Catherine Knight, which as an “environmental history” is also a work of humanities scholarship. The rest of the longlist (and it’s a fabulous longlist, I have no complaints about it) is all humanities: a mix of memoir, history and biography.

But this was no surprise to me. If you look at the books that have been on longlists and shortlists or have been winners of our main New Zealand book awards, the humanities are really well represented. Not so science and technology, the two other focuses of the Royal Society.

So why don’t science books get shortlisted for the main prizes? We certainly have a much longer and stronger tradition of, for example, accessible history writing than science writing.  But I would argue that if we want more and better science writing a dedicated science book prize is a way to encourage it.

I was chatting to Kate Hannah on Monday night and she pointed out that another great thing about the Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize was the way it brought together works from different genres: poetry, short stories, novels, illustrated and general non-fiction – they were all eligible so long as they covered science in an interesting and accessible way. When Helen Heath’s book of poetry Graft was shortlisted for the prize in 2013 perhaps this prompted some readers only interested in science to pick up a book of poetry. Surely this is a good thing?

The “science” we talk about in science books is not just about “doing” science, it’s also about the planet, all its inhabitants, and the universe we live in which is a pretty huge topic. What’s more, in science, we’re trying to get better at engaging audiences with things that matter to their lives, like climate change, or water quality, and a prize that encourages creative approaches to engaging audiences in science is worthwhile continuing.

But of course I’d say that. I was the 2009 winner of the prize and a 2015 judge of the prize, so I have a vested interested in there being a prize I can apply for, and maybe be on the judging panel of again sometime (it was such a pleasure to “have” to read all those great books). Kate and I (and others) are scheming, but what does everyone else think? Does New Zealand need a science book prize?

 

Royal Society Science Book Prize 2009-2015

Shortlist for 2015 Science Book Prize

Tangata Whenua: an Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson FRSNZ, the late Dame Judith Binney FRSNZ and Aroha Harris, published by Bridget Williams Books (winner)

The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis FRSNZ (Auckland University Press)

Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes (Victoria University Press)

Dolphins of Aotearoa: Living with New Zealand Dolphins by Raewyn Peart (Craig Potton Publishing)

Manuka: the Biography of an Extraordinary Honey by Cliff Van Eaton (Exisle Publishing)

Shortlist for 2013 Science Book Prize

Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird by Quinn Berenson (Potton & Burton) (winner)

Science on Ice: Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica by Veronica Meduna (AUP)

Graft by Helen Heath (VUP)

Shortlist for 2011 Science Book Prize

Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction: Alison Balance (Craig Potton) (winner)

North Pole South Pole: The Epic Quest to Solve the Great Mystery of Earth’s Magnetism by Gillian Turner (Awa Press)

Poles Apart: Beyond the Shouting, Who’s Right about Climate Change? by Gareth Morgan and John McCrystal (Random House)

Shortlist for 2009 Science Book Prize

The Awa Book of New Zealand Science, edited by Rebecca Priestley (Awa Press)

Falling for Science by Bernard Beckett (Longacre Press)

Hot Topic: Climate Change and the Future of New Zealand by Gareth Renowden (AUT Media)

In Search of Ancient New Zealand by Hamish Campbell and Gerard Hutching (Penguin)

As far as I can tell, the only books on this list that also won prizes at the New Zealand Book Awards were Tangata Whenua: an illustrated history (winner, Illustrated non-fiction 2015),  Graft (winner, NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry, 2013) and Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird by Quinn Berenson (NZSA E.H. McCormick Best First Book Award for Non-fiction).

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About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
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One Response to Does New Zealand need a science book prize?

  1. JSFleming says:

    Thanks Rebecca – I needed to read this. It was a big surprise to me too. As a former judge of the RSNZ Science Book prize I saw so many wonderful books, both fiction and non-fiction, depicting “science” in so many different ways and from so many perspectives, that I wonder now whether the problem was finding people willing to judge such a diverse and enormous pile of wonder. Please keep writing. I need your voice!

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