In many cases, the experience changed the course of their careers, and their lives. “Everybody I worked with who did the fellowship came back energized,” says Nils Bruzelius, former science editor of the Boston Globe, and later of the Washington Post, who was a Knight Fellow in 1992-93. “They did deeper work, more informed work, and they did it with more enthusiasm.”
While there are other fellowships for journalists, the Knight Fellowship program at MIT is the only such program aimed specifically at the journalists who cover science, technology, medicine and the environment.
It was created in 1983 by president Paul Gray and Carl Kaysen, then director of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), which had been established a few years earlier under MIT's previous president Jerome Wiesner. “The notion took hold that it would be good for MIT to have a fellowship program for science journalists, on the model of the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard,” explains Victor McElheny, the first director of the Knight Fellowship program, who headed it for 15 years.
Within a few years, the program had established itself and ensured its permanence by raising an endowment from a variety of foundations and private donors, led by a challenge grant from the Knight Foundation (now the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation).
One of the key goals, explains McElheny, who had previously served as a science writer and editor at the Boston Globe and New York Times, was to allow journalists to form personal connections with leading researchers. The fellowship allows them “to make acquaintances who will provide them not only with story tips, but with judgment,” McElheny says — someone they can call upon to decide, “Is this a story or not? Is it important? Is it credible?”
Boyce Rensberger, a former science writer and editor for the Washington Post and New York Times, ran the fellowship for 10 years starting in 1998. “We felt that [its] role was to improve the quality of science information reaching the public,” he says. Anecdotally, he adds, “When I started, there were lots of major newspapers that would run stories on so-called medical breakthroughs that would have a lot of us slapping our heads and rolling our eyes. … I honestly think I’m seeing less and less of that going on.”
One way the program has changed, Rensberger says, is that initially almost all Knight Fellows were newspaper and magazine staffers — jobs that have now dwindled. While there was initially controversy within the Knight program as to whether it was acceptable to include Internet-only journalists, such as full-time bloggers, such people have now become regular participants in the program. “It doesn’t matter whether your journalism is stamped onto paper or appears as glowing pixels on a screen, or sound waves out of a speaker,” Rensberger says.
Over the years, science writers from most of the country’s leading media outlets have taken part in the fellowship, as have dozens from other parts of the world. Three decades on, 80 percent of those who have participated remain actively engaged in science journalism, says the program’s current director, Philip Hilts.
Influential Knight Fellows from the very first class in 1983 include Paula Apsell, who subsequently became executive producer of the PBS science series “Nova,” and Mitchel Resnick, now the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at MIT and program head of MIT’s Media Lab.
The basic format of the nine-month fellowship has remained unchanged: The 10 to 12 fellows attend two special seminars per week, and are free to audit as many MIT and Harvard classes as they like (although some do choose to participate fully in courses). But new programs have also been added over the years, such as the intensive “boot camps” on subjects such as climate change, astrophysics, food and agriculture, and medical evidence; the program now offers four such boot camps annually. In addition, the Knight program now runs a website called “The Tracker” that posts daily critiques of how science stories are being covered by the media.
“Before I did the fellowship, I was feeling a little burned out,” says Bruzelius, who in more than two decades at the Boston Globe had shared a Pulitzer Prize for reporting. He returned to his job “totally fired up,” he says.
Bruzelius also saw a difference in substance, not just in attitude, he says: When he went back to editing, “I had questions that I knew to ask that I otherwise wouldn’t have known to ask.”