Are fungi the answer to our climate crisis?

Inaugural Young Science Writer of the Year Award winner announced by the Association of British Science Writers.

A teenage girl wearing a mauve headscarf, white floral dress and pink top, standing in front of a green leafy background,

The Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) and the Royal Institution (Ri) have today named fourteen-year-old Zara Hussan as the first-ever winner of a new Young Science Writer of the Year Award, a competition supported by the BBC.

Zara, from Plashet School in East Ham, London, was praised by the Award judges for her ‘beautifully written, informative and thought-provoking’ essay on the hidden role played by rainforest fungi in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, by enabling certain trees to absorb CO2 faster than others while simultaneously delaying the process of decomposition which releases CO2 into the atmosphere.

Zara’s essay has been published on the BBC website alongside the work of professional science writers. She will receive her award – including £1000 to help with her writing development, a year’s ABSW membership, and mentoring from a senior science writer – in front of her classmates at a special event in the Royal Institution's Theatre later this month.

Also highly commended by the judges were fourteen-year-old Oisin Wagstaff-Dent from Bishop Challoner Catholic College in Birmingham and sixteen-year-old Sanjana Ahmed from Sarah Bonnell School in Stratford, London, who have been named as joint runners-up in a competition that saw over 100 entries from teenagers at non-selective, state-funded schools in Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham and the London Borough of Newham. Each will receive £250 for use to support their further development as a science writer.

Oison’s entry examining how Argentine ants affect ecosystems and human life, and Sanjana’s questioning the ‘privacy or protection’ status of computational forensics will both be published on the Ri website.

Alex O’Brien, ABSW vice-chair, said: “I am delighted to have seen over 100 high-quality entries in the competition, and so many from schools in disadvantaged areas, whose keen students we particularly wanted to support.

“It is clear that our young people have a strong interest in science and they have opinions that should be heard. I hope that as the Young Science Writer’s Award grows, we will continue to demonstrate that a career in science writing is a possibility for all, regardless of background.”

Daniel Glaser, Director of Science Engagement at the Royal Institution said: “Well-researched, authoritative and high-quality science writing directly correlates with the public’s engagement with science and with a considered debate around the application of scientific advances for the benefit of society.

“This deeper thought about the place of science in our lives is central to our charitable mission at the Ri and so I am very pleased that the introduction of this award has been such a huge success.”

Andy Extance, Chair of the ABSW, said: “We have a clear responsibility to nurture the science writers and commentators of tomorrow and this Award is an important opportunity to do just that.

“Zara, Oisin and Sanjana – and every young student who took the time to submit their considered opinions on the biggest questions in science – deserve commendation for the way in which they have illuminated how science impacts on policy making and society.”

BBC science correspondent Victoria Gill said: “The Young Science Writer’s Award is a wonderful opportunity for young people to have a voice in science communication. I hope it inspires more students, in schools throughout the UK, to think and write about the challenges that science and technology can help us to understand and to tackle.

Zara’s winning essay is an excellent example of how there is a fascinating story in every organism – even the tiny fungal networks in the soil beneath our feet. We’re delighted to publish it on the BBC News website.”

Conceived by the O’Brien family and opening for entries for the first time in March this year, the Young Science Writer of the Year Award is designed to get students aged 14-16 thinking and writing about the big questions in science, technology, engineering and maths, at a time when the rise of mis-information and dis-information, which is disproportionately consumed online by young people, is of increasing concern to children’s charities worldwide.

A report published by UNICEF last year cites research from Germany in which 76% of 14 to 24-year-olds reported seeing online mis/dis-information at least once a week – a rise of 50% in just two years – and further research from the UK, which found that only 2% of children and young people have the critical literacy skills they need to judge whether a news story is real or false.

By nurturing aspiring young science writers now, the ABSW, Ri and BBC hope that the Award will help maintain robust, evidence-based science writing in the future, contributing to one of UNICEF’s calls for educators to engage in children’s media activities, help develop their critical thinking, and support media and information literacy programmes.

In the Award’s inaugural year, entries were invited from just four parts of the UK to raise the likelihood of entries from students at schools in disadvantaged areas. Now, with entries having been so high, the Award partners will review the extent of the Award in 2023, with a view to it being rolled out in more areas, with further funding support having been received from AI and computer programming company, DeepMind Technologies.

For more information

For more information please contact Sally Hawkes at the ABSW: sally.hawkes@absw.org.uk or Robert Davies in the Ri press office: rdavies@ri.ac.uk

Notes to editors

The report Digital Misinformation / Disinformation and Children, published in August 2021 by UNICEF’s Office of Global Insight and Policy, cites various studies undertaken by 3rd party organisations worldwide, including the UK’s 2018 Commission on Fake News and Critical Literacy in Schools, which found that only 2 per cent of children and young people have the critical literacy skills they need to judge whether a news story is real or false; and research published in December 2020 by the Vodafone Foundation Germany in which 76 per cent of 14 to 24-year-olds reported seeing online mis/disinformation at least once a week.

About the Young Science Writer Judges

Entries to the inaugural Young Science Writer of the Year Awards were judged by:

  • Peter Gallivan, Science writer and Family Programme Manager at the Royal Institution 
  • Pallab Ghosh, Science Correspondent at the BBC
  • Daniel Glaser, Director of Science Engagement at the Royal Institution
  • Roger Highfield, Science writer and Science Director at the Science Museum
  • Alex O’Brien, Science writer and ABSW Board Member
  • Rob Reddick, UK Science Editor at WIRED

About the ABSW

The Association of British Science Writers is a membership association for media professionals who cover science, medicine, environment, mathematics, engineering and technology.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2022, the ABSW offers training and networking events, professional development and special interest groups, access to scientific journals and other science writing resources, and an annual awards scheme that celebrates excellence in science journalism.

About the Ri

As a registered charity the Royal Institution’s (Ri) purpose is to harness science for the maximum benefit of society. But to achieve the full benefits of what science has to offer, we must ensure there is a healthy and dynamic interaction between science, culture and society. Home to eminent scientists such as Michael Faraday, Humphry Davy and Kathleen Lonsdale, the Ri’s discoveries have helped to shape the modern world. Just as importantly these scientists recognised the importance of sharing their work with the wider public. 

Today we continue to encourage people to think more deeply about the wonders and applications of science by providing science education and heritage activities for people of all ages and backgrounds across the UK and around the world. These activities include the world-famous CHRISTMAS LECTURES®; public talks from the world’s greatest thinkers in our historic lecture theatre; a national programme of Masterclasses for young people in mathematics, engineering and computer science; hands-on science workshops in our Young Scientist Centre; animations and films from our award-winning Ri Channel and the preservation of our scientific legacy through the Faraday Museum and archival collections. 

About the Royal Institution

The Royal Institution’s (Ri) vision is for a world where everyone is inspired to think more deeply about science and its place in our lives. Home to eminent scientists such as Michael Faraday, Humphry Davy, Kathleen Lonsdale and John Tyndall, its discoveries have helped to shape the modern world. Just as importantly these scientists recognised the importance of sharing their work with the wider public.

Today the Ri continues its mission to build on its heritage and create opportunities for everyone to discover, discuss and critically examine science and how it shapes the world around us. An independent registered charity, the Ri provides science education, public engagement, and heritage activities for people of all ages and backgrounds across the UK and around the world. These activities include the world-famous CHRISTMAS LECTURES; public talks from the world's greatest thinkers in its historic lecture theatre and livestreamed online; a successful YouTube channel with over 1 million subscribers, a national programme of Ri Masterclasses for young people in mathematics, engineering and computer science; hands-on science workshops in its L'Oréal Young Scientist Centre; award winning animations and films; and the preservation of its scientific legacy through the Faraday Museum and archival collections.