Journalists Mark Fischetti, Sarah Scoles and Jonathan O’Callaghan have been awarded top honors from AGU for their reporting in the Earth and space sciences. 


AGU recognizes Scientific American senior editor Mark Fischetti with the 2021 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism for his work as a reporter, editor and mentor. Freelance reporter Sarah Scoles receives the 2021 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – News for a story about the possible discovery of phosphine on Venus. Jonathan O’Callaghan, a freelance space reporter, is honored with the 2021 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – Features for an in-depth story about an ingredient of meteorites that may hold important clues to our solar system’s earliest moments.


The three AGU journalism awards will be formally presented during AGU’s annual Honors Ceremony on Wednesday, 15 December 2021, as part of the AGU Fall Meeting 2021. 


Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism

Cowen award winner Mark Fischetti has been a reporter, editor and mentor for nearly four decades, and is currently a senior editor at Scientific American where he oversees the magazine’s sustainability coverage and edits the Graphic Science page. The Robert C. Cowen Award, named for the former science editor of The Christian Science Monitor, commends a journalist for “significant, lasting, outstanding and consistent contributions to Earth and space science journalism for the general public.” The award is given no more often than every other year and recipients receive a glass globe on a pedestal.


As both a reporter and editor, Fischetti has demonstrated a keen eye for identifying and highlighting important science stories, often long before they attract attention outside of the research community. The articles he has helped to produce are clear, comprehensive and eminently readable, cutting straight to the intersection of science and society’s most pressing challenges, Cowen Award selection committee members noted.  


The committee observed that Fischetti seems to have a sixth “science sense” that appears to lead him to important scientific work well
ahead of other journalists. For example, he put the puzzle pieces together in identifying and explaining the danger that New Orleans was in before Katrina devastated the Queen City. When scientists began to better understand atmospheric moisture bands that come across the U.S. West Coast, Fischetti was there as an early explainer of what we now term atmospheric rivers. 


During his career in science journalism, Fischetti has given a voice to scientists so that the public could hear them, according to the selection committee. Both as an editor and a writer, Fischetti has helped scientists clearly communicate their work. His pieces cut through scientific jargon, showing how important and interesting each discovery is. They introduce his readers to leading scientists as well as up-and-coming ones. The selection committee was particularly impressed, for example, with his work with COMPASS to help scientists better explain their work to a general audience. He has helped Earth and atmospheric scientists write popular articles for Scientific American, while also serving as a mentor to countless science journalists.


Prior to his role at Scientific American, Fischetti was a freelance magazine and book writer and editor, after serving as an editor of IEEE Spectrum. He was assistant issue editor for a special edition of IEEE Spectrum on the future of space exploration that was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Fischetti has been an editor at Scientific American for the past 15 years, where he also proposed and served as founding editor of the Graphic Science page, presenting data visualizations on science topics, and proposed and edited a series of special editions, Scientific American Earth 3.0, to bring special focus to solving Earth’s rapidly rising climate and environmental issues.



David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Writing – News 


Perlman award winner Sarah Scoles is recognized for “’Dr. Phosphine’ and the Possibility of Life on Venus,” published 14 September 2020 in Wired. The David Perlman Award, named for the late San Francisco Chronicle science editor, recognizes excellence in science news reporting published with deadline pressure of one week or less. The award comes with a $5,000 prize and a plaque.


Scoles’s article deftly interweaves the scientific process, in all its rigor and nuance, with the poignant and captivating narrative of a truly exceptional human experience: What does it feel like to have potentially discovered that we are truly not alone in the universe?  


When word got out about a forthcoming paper in Nature on the possible discovery of phosphine on Venus, reporters around the world rushed to prepare articles about this work and its impact on the search for extraterrestrial life. Scoles decided to take a different approach, one that would hold up even if the results and conclusions came into question: She profiled two astronomers whose work came together in the new paper. 


The Perlman award selection committee called Scoles’s story original and utterly delightful. Judges described it as “brilliant,” “genius writing and storytelling” and “absolutely the best story about the phosphine discovery that I have read.” 


“I loved it,” one judge commented. “I mean, she got bogs, intestines, George Floyd, COVID and Venus into one story in a way that made perfect sense … I had a dozen parts where I wrote ‘wow’ or ‘beautiful’ next to some text.” 



Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – Features


Jonathan O’Callaghan receives the 2021 Walter Sullivan award for, “Asteroid Dust from Hayabusa2 Could Solve a Mystery of Planet Creation,” first published 8 December 2020 in Scientific American. The Water Sullivan Award, named for the late New York Timesscience writer, honors excellence in science feature reporting for work prepared with a deadline of more than one week. The award comes with a $5,000 prize and a plaque. 


“This story captures the emotional aspect of research science, both the excitement of discovery and the confusion and sometimes despair when a clear model to explain all observations remains elusive,” according to one judge.  


O’Callaghan’s story focuses on chondrules, an ingredient of meteorites that may hold important clues to our solar system’s earliest moments. These seedlike rocks will be analyzed in more detail after the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Hayabusa2 mission successfully returns pieces of an asteroid to Earth, potentially providing scientists with an opportunity to resolve critical questions about the formation of planets.


In addition to commending O’Callaghan for his thorough and clear examination of chondrule research, a little-known and complex area of geoscience, the judges also found much to praise in the way that the article unfolds. One judge wrote: “From its vivid introduction to the way it funnels the reader into its core topic, this article shows a great command of storytelling and offers a fascinating insight into the people behind our scientific understanding of chondrules – so far – as well as the often complex science itself.”





Founded in 1919, AGU is a not-for-profit scientific society dedicated to advancing Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity. We support 60,000 members, who reside in 135 countries, as well as our broader community, through high-quality scholarly publications, dynamic meetings, our dedication to science policy and science communications, and our commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as many other innovative programs. AGU is home to the award-winning news publication Eos, the Thriving Earth Exchange, where scientists and community leaders work together to tackle local issues, and a headquarters building that represents Washington, D.C.’s first net zero energy commercial renovation. We are celebrating our Centennial in 2019. #AGU100