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Knight Science Journalism Program director Philip Hilts to step down

Phil Hilts (pictured here) will step down as director of the MIT Knight Science Journalism Program in June.
Phil Hilts (pictured here) will step down as director of the MIT Knight Science Journalism Program in June.

Philip J. Hilts, the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT for the past six years, has announced that he will retire at the end of June.

The Knight Program he heads brings a dozen prominent science journalists to MIT to study for a full academic year. The only one of its kind in the world, the program has run for 31 years and created 320 alumni who are now continuing their science writing at major news outlets in 40 countries.

"The Knight Program has been a tremendous asset to MIT, and a powerful resource for our understanding of the relationship between science and technology and the public. And Phil Hilts has brought energy and innovation to the program, creating new programs and expanding its international reach. I am very grateful to Phil for his leadership," said Deborah Fitzgerald, the Kenan Sahin Dean at the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

“A notable feature of Phil’s directorship has been the sharp increase in applicants for the Knight program, a strong indication that time at MIT has become a salient experience for science journalists,” said Victor McElheny, founding director of the program in 1982-98, and a research affiliate in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society.

The program began under McElheny in 1983 with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations. With later grants from the Knight Foundation and MIT, the program was fully endowed by 1995. During the directorship of Boyce Rensberger 1998-2008, the program added new intensive, single-subject workshops known as Boot Camps and a portal for daily online commentary called KSJ Tracker.

During Hilts’ directorship, the number of applications to the program has increased from about 80 per year to about 150 for the 12 Fellowship spots.  The number of boot camps offered to the fellows and other journalists each year has also doubled, bringing another 330 journalists to MIT, all told. The boot camps have covered energy and climate, medical evidence, food and science, brain science, astrophysics, nanotechnology, and other topics. 

Creating training courses in video and audio storytelling, Hilts also brought in coaches on the uses of various social media and established data journalism training for the fellows.

In addition, Hilts set up a 13th “Project Fellowship,” which enables a journalist to propose a project to be carried out during the academic year and then published both in print and digitally. Hilts also established annual campus events, one at the MIT Museum and one panel on a current topic in news and science.

The KSJ Tracker blog daily follows and critiques science journalism stories published in English- and Spanish-speaking countries. It has been dubbed “peer review in science journalism.” Six senior science journalists serve as commentators. Since 2008 when Hilts started, the number of unique visitors to the site has nearly doubled, from about 23,000 visitors per month in 2008 to 45,000 per month this year.

Hilts also teaches the basics of newswriting in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.

A journalist since 1968, Hilts was a prize-winning science writer at both The New York Times and The Washington Post. At the Times he broke the story of the tobacco industry’s 40-year cover up of its own research showing that tobacco was both harmful and addictive. During more than 20 years at the Times and the Post he wrote more than 300 front-page stories, including a report back from a mile below the Pacific Ocean surface in an active volcano; the confessions of a healer in Zambia who was "curing" AIDS; and articles on hypnosis-induced court testimony that resulted in four men being freed from jail.

The most recent of Hilts’ six books is “Rx for Survival: Why We Must Rise to the Global Health Challenge,” which was a New York Times notable book of the year. Another book, “Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation,” described the battle to establish science as the basis for public policy. It won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in science and technology and was named a New York Times notable book of the year. His book, “Scientific Temperaments,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. Business Week selected Hilts’ book, “Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-up,” as one of the 10 best books of the year.

A Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, a Shorenstein Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and twice a fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, Hilts has also been a regular commentator on health and science issues for National Public Radio.

He will continue at MIT as a research associate, and he plans to begin research for his next book, which will focus on new solar energy technology.

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