GSA Medals & Awards

2006 GSA Public Service Award

Richard A. Kerr
Richard A. Kerr
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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Presented to Richard A. Kerr

 Citation by Ann M. Cairns

The GSA Public Service Award was established by Council in 1998 in honor of Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker. It is awarded to individuals who have significantly enhanced public understanding of the earth sciences.

We live in a time of rapidly expanding scientific knowledge and a time of high stakes for science-based public policy issues. The need is great for gifted individuals who can make sense of the science for others, and who communicate it in ways that engage, inform, and prompt positive action.

The Geological Society of America is pleased to honor just such an individual tonight. The recipient of the 2006 GSA Public Service Award is Richard A. Kerr, senior writer for Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dick Kerr has written more than 1200 science-news articles over a career spanning nearly 30 years. His work is a delight to read. Dick places research in context, walks his readers through the research process and findings, explains associated debates and controversies, and illuminates the evolution of thought from previously published research.

Dick is respected for both the breadth and depth of his knowledge, amassed by scouring the scholarly publications, listening to countless presentations at meetings and conferences, and interviewing those whose work is on the leading edge of their disciplines. He understands emerging issues and developing trends. Numerous researchers have said that getting a phone call from Dick is a signal that they’ve made it.

Dick has been described by fellow geoscience writers as the head of the pack. They report reading him religiously every week, carefully monitoring what he covers and who he interviews.

Over the years Dick has generously mentored new writers. At Science, he has worked with a stream of interns from university science-writing programs, and counseled aspiring journalism and pre-journalism students who contact him for advice. It’s fair to say that Dick’s legacy will consist not only of his own body of work but of other science writers he has inspired and encouraged along the way.

Dick’s journey into science journalism began with a B.A. in chemistry from the College of Wooster in 1968. He worked the following year as a research chemist in the Ocean Sciences Division of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Dick then served three years as an officer in the U.S. Navy, where he was assigned to the fleet oiler U.S.S. Ponchatoula. After completing his term of service, he headed for the University of Rhode Island, where he enrolled in the graduate program in oceanography.

While a graduate student, Dick’s interest in pursuing a broader view of Earth and the environment asserted itself. Having once heard that science writing is basically a long career in graduate school, he enrolled in night courses in journalism on the sly.

In 1977 Dick completed his Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. He also hired on as an entry-level writer with Science, where his beat was geophysics. In three years, Dick was promoted to senior writer, covering earth and planetary science. Now he describes his beat as physical phenomena anywhere within the gravitational influence of the sun.

As Dick’s list of published articles has grown, so has his list of honors received:

  • In 1990 he received a Special Award from the American Meteorological Society for the “consistently high quality of his articles in Science.”
  • In 1993 he earned AGU’s first Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism.
  • In 1994 the National Association of Geology Teachers acknowledged Dick’s “excellence in geoscience writing” with the James Shea Award.
  • In 1995 he was the recipient of AGI’s award for Outstanding Contribution to Public Understanding of Geology.
  • That same year he was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, and in 1996 he received the University of Rhode Island Alumni Association’s Excellence Award for Professional Achievement.

Tonight GSA honors Dick for the tremendous contribution he has made to public understanding of earth science. We celebrate all that he has accomplished and look forward to his work yet to be published. It is my pleasure to introduce Dick Kerr as recipient of the 2006 GSA Public Service Award.

 top 2006 GSA Public Service Award - Response by Richard A. Kerr

Thank you, Ann, for all those kind words. And most of all this evening, I want to thank you, the members of GSA, for making it possible for me to win such an award.

You see, they don’t let me make much up at Science. Just about anything of consequence that I write comes from you and your colleagues in the broader earth science community. You’re the ones who labor day in and day out in the lab and in the field to produce the exciting science that goes in the news sections of science. And it’s you who answers my phone calls from out of the blue and spends half, three-quarters, and even a full hour of your busy day to explain what you’ve done, what others have done, why certain work is so important, or, sometimes, why I shouldn’t be quite so excited about somebody else’s work — all absolutely essential inputs to a news story. So I thank you all for your dedication, your expertise, and your generosity.

Always-helpful sources are vital, of course, but there’s another indispensable group that gets no credit beyond having their names on the masthead. Editors shape stories and the words that tell them. I’d like to thank my first editor, Allen Hammond, who was the founding editor of the research news section of Science and hired me to cover geophysics. And two of my first-line editors (every story has two editors) stand out: Tim Appenzeller, now at National Geographic, and Polly Shulman, my editor of the past 5 years. Polly lives and works in Manhattan, but distance is no obstacle to her sensitive and expert handling of my copy.

Of course, getting the opportunity to serve the public for almost 30 years takes a long line of other people lending a hand and opening doors over the years — my parents, who tolerated my early chemistry experiments in their kitchen; Miss Powell, my 8th grade English teacher who insisted on our diagramming sentences; Don Herbert, aka Mr. Wizard, who helped spark my first interest in science with his TV show; the chemistry profs at the College of Wooster, who insisted on your thinking in class, the lab, and the library; and Jim Quinn at the University of Rhode Island, whose guiding hand saw me out of grad school, degree in hand, just in time for a job at Science.

In closing, I’d just like to say how much fun it’s been conveying your science to the public. Bringing the science of how the world works to the attention of the public, with your help, has been a thrill these 29 years. If it’s been a service as well, then I have all the more reason to thank you.