The MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award aims to:
- support the career development of current MRC PhD students
- help them build their skills to become tomorrow’s leaders in discovery science
- encourage and recognise outstanding written communication.
The award is named after the eminent scientist and Nobel Laureate Dr Max Perutz, an accomplished and natural communicator who died in 2002. Since the competition began in 1998, more than 1,000 MRC researchers have entered it and taken their first steps in communicating their research to the public.
For the past two years MRC have partnered with The Observer, who publish the winning article.
The 2021 competition is now closed.
The shortlist for this year’s award was announced on 21 September.
Students are eligible to submit one article if they are:
- MRC-funded PhD students in universities
- PhD students in MRC units, centres, and institutes, regardless of source of funding
- students currently enrolled on the masters’ segment of an MRC-funded integrated masters or PhD.
The competition brief
Tell the reader in 1,100 words about the research within your PhD and why it matters.
Even if you have not started your research yet, or are at early stages of it, you can still write about the research you are planning to do and why it is important.
You must do this in a way that will interest a non-scientific reader – the hundreds of thousands of people who read The Observer. The article you write must also be timely, so readers get the sense they are reading about an area of research that is important now.
You must ensure that:
- the article is no more than 1,100 words, including the title (anything over will be disregarded and not read as part of your entry)
- the article is text only: do not include diagrams or tables
- you do not include your name or any other personal details within your document or in the file name
- you do not provide academic references but do include journalistic references to the who, what, when, where and why
- the article you submit has not already been published elsewhere.
You cannot submit the same article to the competition more than once. If you win the competition you cannot enter it again. The judges’ decision will be final.
Judges and judging criteria
The competition’s judges are:
- Professor Fiona Watt, executive chair of MRC (chairing the judging panel)
- Dr Roger Highfield, MRC council member and science director of the Science Museum Group
- Andy Ridgway, journalist and senior lecturer in science communication at the University of the West of England, Bristol
- Ian Tucker, science and technology editor of The Observer
- Gaia Vince, journalist, author and broadcaster
- Dr Furaha Asani, researcher and writer.
The judges will select the winning article based on:
- creativity: the article should grab the interest of readers, from the first word to the very last
- content: the article needs to explain the research in a way that is easily understood by a non-scientific reader
- structure: it should be well structured and convincingly answer the question ‘Why does my research matter?’
- timeliness: would it make sense to readers why they are being told about this research now?
Science writing advice
Write your article so that a non-scientific reader can understand it, and so that it is appropriate for publication in The Observer. The judges suggest that you:
- concentrate on what is new and exciting about your research and what it might mean (Will it transform how a disease is treated? Does it pose deep ethical questions? Or will it change society in years to come?)
- avoid writing a general review, focus on your research
- avoid too much history and background – aim for immediacy, salience and journalistic appeal rather than content for Wikipedia
- tell a story, rather than write an opinion piece
- experiment with structure – you do not need to tell your story in a linear chronological way
- speak with other scientists who are experts in the topic you are writing about; they may help to contextualise your research
- feel free to quote human voices in the story rather than research papers – even if they hold opposing views
- never forget that it is not enough to simply inform your readers: you need to entertain them too, since they always have better things to do with their time
- look at the science coverage of The Observer for more ideas of what we’re looking for.
For more writing tips from the judges and a summary of their feedback on previous entries read ‘The secrets of science writing’.
For inspiration, read the winning entry for 2020, which was published in The Observer.
Previous award winners
Following are the winners for each year of the Max Perutz Science Writing Award. You can read the winning and shortlisted articles in the linked publication, which also lists the runner-up and commended authors.
Vicky Bennett (2021)
Sarah Taylor (2020)
Akira Wiberg (2019)
Natasha Clarke (2018)
Kirstin Leslie (2017)
Liza Selley (2016)
Emily Eisner (2015)
Christoffer van Tulleken (2014)
Scott Armstrong (2013)
Andrew Bastawrous (2012)