A groundbreaking article on how unauthorised draft copies of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 work programmes were leaked and circulating around Europe, published by Science|Business last October, won a prestigious science writing prize for former news editor Joanne O'Dea last night (Wednesday, 18 June). The Association of British Science Writers award for best newcomer was presented at the Royal Society in London by Ellen Rose, Communications and External Affairs Leader for Johnson & Johnson Innovation.
O'Dea's article detailed how draft copies of the Horizon 2020 work programmes were circulated to various advisors and friends, official and otherwise, without it being publicly available to all. These documents spell out how the Commission will be allocating its money for the next two years, and give ample hints on what kinds of applications are most likely to succeed.
Eventually, the final drafts are always made public. But in the critical nine-month drafting stage, the documents in development are justifiably prized by ambitious university grants officers. Any university that can see the early drafts can get a head start of some months in preparing its own grant applications.
That's great if you are a well-connected university in London or Karlsruhe, but not so great if you don’t fall into this category – hardly a level playing field. So O'Dea proceeded to search the Internet for the documents, on the supposition that those who had received them would have been indiscreet enough to share the documents with their own friends on a public server – and indeed, that was the case. So she indexed them, and in this article provided links to them online so anybody in the world could access them free, from Science|Business. A few weeks later, the Commission posted all the documents on its own website.
Exactly how the documents were leaked is not clear. The Commission denies there was any leak and says it distributed copies only to authorised members of its programme committees, which includes member state officials, universities and research centres. Privately some officials said some of those members might have distributed the copies but there’s never been an internal inquiry as to how it happened.
The Association of British Science Writers awards were first launched in 1966, and are considered a model throughout Europe. Next year the association will introduce a new category, European Science Journalist of the Year, to "further expand our celebration of great science journalism to the rest of Europe", it says.