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Best Shortform Science Writing: July-December 2020

Putting together SciShortform round-ups often feels like packing a time capsule. The stories we include highlight emerging voices and unsung (or, at least, underappreciated) voices in science communication, but they also reflect the headlines and curiosities that continued to resonate with SciShortform’s volunteers when we read and re-read these pieces months after their initial publication.

Assembling a list of science news articles to represent a year defined by science news stories heightened the “time capsule” feeling.

I don’t know if we succeeded, but I do think this edition of SciShortform is one of the strongest round-ups to date. Please enjoy these stories, and please continue to celebrate the science writing community.


Altogether, we received 438 nominations for this cycle and narrowed them down to about 215 finalist pieces.

Overall, we faced one of the strongest pools of finalist pieces in SciShortform’s history, and, during our editorial deliberations, there were an unprecedented number of “brutal” and “painful” cuts as we whittled down the finalists to the 62 pieces below.

All of these pieces had to survive two rounds of selection and SciShortform editors.

If you submitted something that did not make the final cut, please continue submitting pieces for future cycles. The form for the 2021 January-June cycle is here!

Our Team

This edition’s editors include: PhD Candidate Matthew de Gannes of University of Cincinnati; environmental writer Jennifer Junghans; postdoc Aparna Kishor, MD, PhD; Silke Kramprich of Laser Zentrum Hannover; science writer Andrew Meissen; freelance science writer Stephen Riffle, PhD; freelance science writer Caroline Seydel; science writer and retired teacher Elliot Richman, PhD; biology grad student Madhuri Srinivasan; and me (freelance science writer Diana Crow).

Our team of story scouts included freelance science writer and Plant Crimes podcast host Ellen Airhart and graduate student Ashwini P.

Special thanks to freelance science writer Dani Leviss (NYU SHERP ‘19), who has been managing our social media. And to freelance science writer Courtney Columbus and graduate student Kiran Gurung of University of Groningen, who have been assisting us in the preparation of grant applications and outreach to other organizations.

This project was funded in part by a grant from the National Association of Science Writers. Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement or recommendation by the National Association of Science Writers, and any views and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Science Writers.

About the Round-Up Format

Stories in each tier are in alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

There were a few outstanding pieces nominated for this cycle that were actually published in July, so we rolled them over to consideration for the July-December round-up. You can nominate pieces for the 2021 January-June round-up here.

Anyone interested in our selection criteria can check out our rubric here.

A banner image displaying SARS-CoV-2 virions alongside a depiction of the globe. Image by Fernando Zhiminaicela via PixaBay

Pandemic, Part 2 (1600 words & under)

This round-up coincided with the pandemic’s long, tortuous middle. Here were a few of the most memorable COVID-related pieces from July 2020 through December 2020.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A guppy belonging to the species Poecilia reticulata. Photo by Holger Krisp via Wikimedia Commons.

Short Shorts (600 words & under)

Condensing scientific research into ultra-short blurbs poses a unique set of challenges. Here we recognize writers for their ability to concisely convey nuance, while also telling a good yarn. These picks are ordered alphabetically by the author’s last name.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A close-up image of the small, lumpy moon Phobos. Image by European Space Agency via Wikimedia Commons. (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum),CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

News, Investigative, or Data (601–1400 words)

We’ve merged our “News & Trends” and “Data or Investigative” categories into one category. Pieces in this category often synthesize information from many scientific reports, explore local issues through a science lens, use data or FOIA requests to substantiate their stories, and, above all, display serious reporting chops.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A Twinkie-like pastry. Image by WikimediaImages via Pixabay.

Single Study Deep Dives & Profiles (601–1200 words)

These reported stories zoom in on one study, one scientist, or one healthcare practitioner and bring their worlds to life with compelling prose and behind-the-scenes insight.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A specimen of the plankton Phronima sedentaria. Photo by Eric A. Lazo-Wasem via Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and Wikimedia Commons.

Columns, Essays, Blog Posts, and Editorials (1400 words & under)

We’ve merged the “Columns, Op/Eds, and Blogs” with the “Essays and Literary” to create one category, full of compelling arguments and evocative personal narratives.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

Photo of the Large Hadron Collider. Image by Vieamusante via Wikimedia Commons.

Institutional (1200 words & under)

This category recognizes stories by science writers who work for institutions, such as Public Information Officers (PIOs) and contributors to university magazines. It can also include pieces written for official outreach blogs and for scientific journals.

Top Picks:

Honorable Mentions:

A fire burns in a forest in Oregon. Photo via Bureau of Land Management via Flickr.


This is the category where we put pieces we loved that were either a little bit too long, too old, or hard to directly compare to other stories. Regardless, we loved these pieces. Enjoy!

And those are our picks for July through December 2020!

What pieces would you have included? Sound off in the responses!

The Best Shortform Science Writing project highlights outstanding science writing through quarterly round-ups, Q&As with science writers, and more!

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Diana Crow

Diana Crow

Fledgling science journalist here, hoping to foster discussion about the ways science acts as a catalyst for social change #biology

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