DCSWA History

This brief history pulls together anecdotes from DCSWA founders and past presidents collected by 2015 president Gabe Popkin. 

DCSWA was formed in 1988 by co-conspirators Richard Harris of NPR, Joe Palca of Nature, Joanne Silberner of U.S. News & World Report and Larry Thompson of The Washington Post. According to Harris, DCSWA’s first meeting took place before DCSWA actually formed. Cristine Russell from The Washington Post was concerned about federal PIOs who seemed to think their jobs were to prevent reporters from accessing information. Gail Porter, then at the National Academy of Sciences, provided a venue for DC science writers to gather to talk about this still familiar issue.

Out of that meeting, the conspirators realized the potential for an ongoing local science writer’s group. Harris and Palca both were members of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), but there was no local association where they could discuss with colleagues the reporting challenges they faced covering science in the nation’s capital and science policy issues. They were also looking for better ways to learn about scientific developments in a wide range of fields without having to report a specific story.

Harris had been president of NCSWA – the Northern California Science Writers Association – before leaving the San Francisco Examiner to come east to NPR. Lacking much imagination, he suggested they call the local group DCSWA. To include our brethren in Baltimore, that actually stood for the DC-area Science Writers Association. 

According to Joe Palca, the founders initially looked into becoming a local chapter of NASW, but learned that NASW didn’t have local chapters. So from the start, DCSWA operated with its own rules, the most significant of which was there was only one category or membership. Staff reporters, freelancers, PIOs…anyone interested in science writing and willing to pay the $15 annual dues was welcome to join, and we were happy to waive the requirement of being interested in science writing. The founders didn’t want to take themselves too seriously, so Harris chose April Fools Day as the start of DCSWA’s fiscal year. So in 1988, DCSWA was officially born. 

The DCSWA mailing list quickly swelled to about 200 members. As Richard Harris recalls, the board had about 4 meetings a year in the beginning, though they met more frequently to stuff envelopes and plan future events. 

In 1993, Rick Borchelt became the first PIO president of DCSWA. That year, DCSWA Summer Soirees began, and Borchelt led the first intrepid travelers for a weekend of science and sensibility on Chincoteague Island that included the piping plover recovery project, a tour of NASA’s Wallops Island launch center, and a lecture on the history and management of the wild ponies. 

When Mitch Waldrop became president in 2004, DCSWA elected its first vice-president, Anne Bolen. This moved DCSWA to an NASW-style system in which the vice-president would automatically become president the next year. In 2006, the board launched new DCSWA website in Memberclicks which allowed automated payments of dues and event fees for the first time; membership grew from about 350 to about 400. The same year, DCSWA held its first Professional Development Day, which has been our signature event ever since. 

In 2009, DCSWA established the Newsbrief Award to highlight works of short science journalism. In 2011, Ivan Amato started the DC Science Café program, an opportunity for the public to engage in open, facilitated, curiosity-driven discussions about scientific discoveries. In 2015, vice president Kasha Patel launched the Hands-on Workshop (HOW) program and Science Comedy Night. Today, DCSWA has over 500 members and counting! We continue to plan the Science Writers Party at the AAAS meeting when it is in Washington, DC, and we regularly plan more than 20 professional development and social events per year. DCSWA has established partnerships with many DC and Baltimore institutions, like the Smithsonian Institution, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Kennedy Krieger Institute, the National Zoo and more.