By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun
9:25 PM EDT, May 24, 2013
Graduates of the Johns Hopkins University's master's program in science writing have explained the prospects of life on Mars, the promise of neuroscience research and the ethics of animal testing on the pages of Scientific American, Nature and Popular Science, on the airwaves of NPR and in books.
But after 30 years among a small tier of similar programs across the country, the tiny one-year program has trained its last writers in the art of translating science for the layman. Hopkins officials discontinued it this month, citing a decline in applications that rendered it not selective enough.
The university plans to add undergraduate classes in the field eventually, leading to a potential return of graduate studies, but the director of the program resigned rather than oversee the changes. Administrators are uncertain why there were fewer applicants for the science writing master's program this spring; media upheaval could be one factor, they said.
Alumni, baffled but respectful of the decision, questioned why statistics and rankings should outweigh a history of supplying correspondents to some of the world's top scientific publications — particularly at an institution best known for its medical discoveries. The program also had no full-time faculty.
"If any university in the country should be able to support a graduate program in science writing, it's Johns Hopkins, for goodness sake," said Deborah Rudacille, the writer of three books since graduating from the program in 1998. "I've always thought the program should be expanded, not cut."
Launched in the 1980s, the program typically graduated about five students each year. It was housed in Hopkins' writing seminars program, which draws hundreds of applications annually for about 10 spots each in poetry- or fiction-writing studies.
The science writing division was less popular — each class was chosen from a pool of about 30 applicants. But that figure fell by nearly two-thirds for the Class of 2014, administrators said.
"With an applicant pool of 11 and then admissions of half of those, and maybe half again decide to come here, it's just not looking as robust as a Hopkins program needs to be," said Katherine Newman, dean of the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
Ann Finkbeiner, a science writer who had organized the program as an adjunct faculty member since the late 1980s, agreed that the drop was troubling. Calls to similar departments at other universities showed an overall decline in applications, she said.
But Finkbeiner decided to stop worrying about it and move forward with the applications she received. Earlier this month, the day she planned to extend invitations to the program, Newman told her not to.
"I was really blindsided," said Finkbeiner, who resigned soon after. "I had heard no hint of disapproval or, 'Can you beef this up?' or 'We have a problem here' or anything like that."
Alumni were equally surprised when they received an email from Finkbeiner.
"My heart sunk," said Virginia Hughes, a 2006 graduate who is a freelance writer in New York. "Being this institution about medicine and science, to get rid of this arm that does so much for communicating that science makes no sense to me."
The program gave aspiring writers some freedom in their studies as they worked on a yearlong thesis project. The size of the program was kept small, in part, because Finkbeiner was responsible for advising each of the students and reading each thesis.
Most graduates went on to successful careers in science writing, on staff or freelancing for such outlets as The Economist, Science, New Scientist, Radiolab and National Geographic.
The science media, like others in the news industry, have seen upheaval in recent years, program alumni said. However, the rise in blogs and websites has also created more opportunities to write, some said, though it takes persistence to freelance.
"It's a tough field. I can understand why there were fewer applications," said Geoff Brumfiel, an NPR reporter who graduated from the program in 2001 and previously wrote for the journal Nature. "The people who come into these programs are smart people."
Other universities that offer science writing master's programs include Boston University, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Hopkins also offers master's degrees focused on science and medical writing through a Washington-based program that is largely online.
Hopkins administrators said the science program grew increasingly different from the poetry- and fiction-writing seminars, which shifted from one-year Master of Arts degree programs to two-year Master of Fine Arts degree programs.
"That doesn't mean that I want, or that any of us want, science writing to disappear at Hopkins," said Mary Jo Salter, co-chairwoman of the writing seminars. "Quite the contrary."
Administrators plan to add more undergraduate science writing classes, potentially in specializations that include brain science, environmental science and public health. A large number of undergraduates seek double majors in science and the humanities and have shown interest in such classes, Salter said.
They hope to eventually add an option for undergraduates to stay a fifth year and earn a Master of Arts degree in science writing, similar to the old program, she said.
Alumni nevertheless were disappointed. Beefing up on science writing at the undergraduate level doesn't replicate what Rudacille called "a professional program," she said. The quality of the graduates should outweigh their numbers, she said.
"They're looking at where the sausage goes in rather than the product that comes out," Rudacille said.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun