Science Writing Degree Created

Columbia has created a new degree program for journalists specializing in earth and environmental sciences.

The two-year program, starting this fall, offers dual degrees: the Master of Arts in earth and environmental sciences plus the Master of Science in journalism. It combines study at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism; at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and at the University's earth sciences research institute, the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. It will provide both the scientific background and the communication skills to inform the public accurately and engagingly about discoveries, processes, insights and controversies involving earth and environmental science issues.

"Many of the most urgent problems we face today involve interactions between society and the physical environment in which we live," said Kim A. Kastens, senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty and adjunct professor of earth and environmental sciences, who developed the new program with Kenneth K. Goldstein, professor of journalism. "Voters, taxpayers, legislators and businesspeople need to be well informed when they are called upon to make decisions on matters as diverse as burying radioactive waste in underground caverns, strengthening building codes to resist earthquake damage, and limiting fossil fuel consumption to reduce global climate warming."

Goldstein said: "Science journalists are translators between those with the knowledge and those with the need to know. The new earth and environmental sciences journalism program seeks to produce graduates who are bilingual in the language of earth sciences and the language of public debate."

The program will comprise two semesters of science coursework, a summer research internship and two semesters of journalism coursework. The science and journalism components will be linked by a seminar called "Case Studies in Earth and Environmental Sciences," in which students will compare reports of discoveries or hypotheses in primary scientific journals with news reports on the same topics.

During the summer internship, each student will complete a three-month research project under the guidance of a Lamont-Doherty scientist, write a master's thesis on it, and defend it orally before a committee of department of earth and environmental sciences faculty. During the journalism year, students will write a second master's project, suitable for publication or broadcast, on a topic in the field.

Kastens and Goldstein said the need for the new program was based on the realization that as the earth approaches its population capacity and faces possible climate change, an increasing percentage of pressing policy and economic issues facing humanity include aspects of earth or environmental sciences. As a consequence, the general public's interest in the subject has grown. At the same time, the body of knowledge in the scientific fields is growing at such a rate that it is increasingly difficult for journalists to self-educate themselves without formal training in science, they said. "A prospective science journalist benefits from immersion in a world-class group of scientists as part of his or her professional preparation, to learn the language, values and culture of the scientific community," Kastens said.

Applicants must have demonstrated writing proficiency and an undergraduate degree in natural or physical sciences, although under exceptional conditions, applicants without undergraduate science training will be considered.

Information is available from Kastens (914-365-8836) or Goldstein (212-854-4718), or on Lamont-Doherty's World Wide Web page:

Columbia University Record -- April 12, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 23