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Policy to the public through narrative nonfiction

Lee Gutkind portrait
June 10, 2014

First there are the wonks – scholars, academics and administrators that pioneer and shape policy – whose efforts influence scientific and technological goals for the future. But often they talk among themselves and not to a larger audience.

And then there are the true storytellers – writers who specialize in capturing colorful and compelling real-life characters and stories that connect with and explain to the public what science and technology mean. But they might not always understand or pay attention to theory and policy like the wonks do.

So what would happen if the writers and wonks were brought together in teams to achieve mutual goals? That’s what Arizona State University professors Lee Gutkind and David Guston set out to do – by pushing the boundaries of collaboration in the wonky world of science and innovation policy scholarship – or, to put it another way, science and technology in society. Gutkind is the founding editor of Creative Nonfiction and Guston is the co-director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes.

The two professors designed a project that partnered 12 early-career policy scholars with 12 early-career writers in an effort to teach all 24 competitively selected fellows the art and craft of creative nonfiction writing. The goal of the two year National Science Foundation-supported project, titled “To Think, To Write, To Publish” (Think Write Publish), was to translate something seemingly obtuse and distant – and wonky – into something wildly wonderful: essays that would entertain everyday readers while simultaneously offering insightful lessons on science and innovation policy through the power of narrative nonfiction – true stories, well told.

The published essays range in topic. Up front you’ll find an essay on fishing menhaden (a small, oily fish) out of the Atlantic, which you likely consume unknowingly. The essay elucidates insights into the many ecological effects of such fishing practices as readers learn of the quiet but powerful players behind this billion-dollar industry. In another essay, readers gain a behind-the-scenes look into the neglected coffers of the priceless Smithsonian archives, where blueprints for the Empire State Building lay dusted over and forgotten.

In this publishing and writing project, few areas go untouched. You’ll read a story about human health illustrated in the essay on personalized medicine and cancer, and another piece on the illusive model of yeast – yes, that odd stuff we use to make bread and beer but still know so little about. While simultaneously harnessing its properties for fine wine, yeast-modeling helps the dedicated, colorful scientists you’ll meet in this story develop cures and medication.

The essays move beyond story to provide readers with opportunities to learn in-depth content about vital issues. It is through the narrative craft – story – that these essays bring to life often drab, dry science policy matters.

Remaining essays focus on a story of genome sequencing, an interesting narrative on climate modeling, another focused on agricultural science and the story of creepy crawling bugs, and one more story on the often forgotten Nobel laureate twice-over, Linus Pauling, who was awarded the Prize for Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize for his outspoken activist work in 1962.

Printed copies of selected essays are available in issue 52 of Creative Nonfiction Magazine – True Stories That Matter and in the summer volume of Issues in Science and Technology. The essays are available at no cost online, starting June 15, through an interactive reading experience at

The online publication also includes an overview of the two-year project and an explanation about the power of the creative nonfiction genre. Intended as a teaching tool, interactive overlays visually illustrate the frame and structure of the essays’ composition.

Creative Nonfiction #52 is available internationally at bookstores and newsstands, as well as at select Whole Foods stores in the Mid-Atlantic region; the magazine is available digitally from Copies are also available directly from Creative Nonfiction and through Issues in Science and Technology.