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Noted science writer Michael Pollan appointed to UC Berkeley journalism school
06 December 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - Noted journalist and best-selling author Michael Pollan has been appointed to the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, starting next semester.

Pollan has fostered interest in science and nature through his writings on such topics as botanical evolution, the beef industry, genetic engineering, a "welfare system" for corn farmers, and destruction of the Cathedral Pines preserve in Connecticut.

A $1.5 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is enabling UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism to hire a professor to focus on science and technology reporting.

"For a science journalist, the ability to understand and then explain scientific and technological developments on his or her own terms is critical, obviously, but that is, in my view, only the first step in grasping their meaning and relevance," said Pollan.

"Unfortunately, much of what passes for science journalism today never gets to the second step. The greater journalistic challenge is to place these developments in the proper context or, more likely, contexts. This might be the context of other scientific fields - a key move in reporting on technology, as when genetically modified crops are examined through the lens of ecology - but also that of politics, economics, culture, history, business, etcetera."

"This is the direction in which I see science journalism evolving, and the prospect of speeding that evolution by helping to educate a generation of new science journalists is what excites me most about the Knight chair," he said.

A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and contributing editor for Harper's Magazine, Pollan also is the author of a best-selling book, "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World."

His essays also have appeared in Harper's, Vogue, Harvard Design Magazine and other publications. Awards for his work include the Borders Original Voice Award for the best non-fiction of 2001 for "Botany of Desire," the John Burroughs prize for the best natural history essay in 1997, and the Reuters-World Conservation Union Global Award for Environmental Journalism for reporting about genetic engineering.

"Michael Pollan's talents are many. Among them is his ability to tackle scientific subjects in a way that is both humanistic and accessible. He has a masterful way of making the complex both interesting and understandable," said Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's journalism school.

"And not to be forgotten is the fact that Pollan is not only an accomplished writer, but also a superb editor and a wonderful teacher," he said, adding that these abilities will make him an asset to the journalism school and to the campus.

Pollan said science journalism today is where political journalism was before Watergate - "not nearly independent or investigative enough, and too reliant on scientists and their journals to determine what constitutes 'news' in the field."

"As he teaches today's students the importance of journalism excellence in science and technology writing, Michael Pollan will be a voice of reason and a force for change throughout the journalism academy and profession, throughout the nation and world," said Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives for the Knight Foundation.

Pollan spent part of the fall semester at UC Berkeley as the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities' Avenali lecturer. Each year, a scholar whose work is of interest to a wide range of humanistic fields is selected as the Avenali lecturer. Others have included photographer Sebastiao Salgado, architect Maya Lin, poet Seamus Heaney, and writer-illustrator Maurice Sendak.

Pollan lectured at UC Berkeley on "Cannabis, Forgetting and the Botany of Desire" and participated in a campus panel discussion in November about the ecology of food. He also spent time on campus in September, when he and UC Berkeley alumna, chef and food activist Alice Waters and writer Eric Schlosser, among others, participated in a five-day forum on food and the environment. The program was organized by the Graduate School of Journalism and the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism.

In the spring semester, Pollan will begin teaching an editing workshop at the journalism school, and in fall 2003, he will begin teaching as a regular faculty member with courses that reflect his interest in using science to explain subjects close to everyday life.

He said he was drawn to UC Berkeley because it is "one of the world's great universities and because the Graduate School of Journalism has emerged as the leader in its field."

Pollan, who is writing a book about the system of food production, said relocating from Connecticut to California places him in a state that plays a crucial role in that topic.