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Shawn Lawrence Otto | Bio



Shawn Lawrence Otto is an award-winning science advocate, author, filmmaker, speaker, novelist, artist and humanitarian who works for smarter politics on a global scale.  He is the cofounder and producer of the US presidential science debates, between president Barack Obama and his opponents Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney, which have become the largest political initiatives in the history of science.  The presidential science debates have since been emulated in several other nations.  In 2012, US congressional leadership also participated and Otto organized and co-moderated a livestreamed presidential surrogate science debate on Capitol Hill.  His book FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, won the 2012 Minnesota Book Award.  His message is that science is quickly outstripping our global policymaking apparatus and the gap is posing a serious challenge to democracy.


Shawn is the writer and coproducer of the Oscar-nominated film HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.  He writes for film and TV's top studios, including DreamWorks, Lions Gate, and Starz. He is currently adapting his novel, Sins Of Our Fathers, for film.


Otto's first novel, Sins Of Our Fathers, captures the gripping story of JW, a banker in an economically distressed small town in Minnesota, who goes under cover in order to stop—by any means necessary—the formation of a competing, Native American-owned bank on the neighboring reservation. His mark is the charismatic Ojibwe financial visionary Johnny eagle. JW forms a relationship with Eagle’s delinquent son Jacob, and uses it to gain Eagle’s trust. But when someone burns down Eagle’s new bank, the tensions between JW’s two worlds explode and things spiral violently out of control. The novel powerfully captures the economic competition with - and racism against - Indians in the depressed heartland of today’s America.  Publication by Milkweed Editions in 2014.


Otto is a speaker at big think, policy and science conferences, in churches and on TV and radio about the topic of science and democracy, and also about writing and filmmaking.  He delivered the keynote address at the 2009 Nobel conference and spoke in the 2012 Denver presidential debate warmup series.  He is a frequent guest of NPR's Talk of the Nation: Science Friday, talking about science and democracy.  His theme — that science is quickly outstripping our global policymaking apparatus and the gap is posing a serious challenge to democracy — has inspired hundreds of thousands of readers and audience members around the world to find news ways to get unstuck from previously intractable problems.

Writer, commentator, blogger

In addition to his books and movies, Otto's work has appeared in The Week, Rolling Stone, Science, Issues in Science and Technology, Salon, Huffington Post, Minnpost, New Scientist, Scientific American, Nature Medicine, and others, and he writes a blog, Neorenaissance, on the antiscience beat and the intersection of knowledge, politics, art and culture.  He is a regular writer for Huffington Post, and his article "Antiscience Beliefs are Jeopardizing U.S. Democracy," in the November, 2012 issue of Scientific American, became their most shared story and was rated one of the best columns in the United States.


Shawn has served in an advisory capacity for the National Academy of Sciences, and the Union of Concerned Scientists' new Center for Science and Democracy.  He is a past board chair of the Loft Literary Center, America's leading literary center, where he was architect of their Loft 2.0 technology transition to online course and conference delivery.  He has been board chair of numerous other nonprofit organizations.  He is a member of the AAAS, Mensa, the Writer's Guild of America, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Society of Environmental Journalists. He is active civicly and has managed two successful statewide political campaigns, and consulted on others.


mn book awards winnerShawn is the recipient of the 2009 National Distinguished Public Service Award of the IEEE-USA (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers - the world's largest professional association for the advancement of technology). 

His book Fool Me Twice received starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and it won the 2012 Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction.

He was a PEN Center USA finalist for his film House of Sand and Fog, which was nominated for three Academy Awards. He won an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation fellowship for best science screenplay; and a McKnight Fellowship for best screenplay.  He has received other speaker awards and volunteer service awards from organizations he has served.


Design & Building

Otto is married to Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto, and the couple have one son.   Otto designed their passive solar, wind-powered, geothermal green home, "Breezy," and the couple built it with their own hands.   It has been featured in national and local publications and toured by more than 10,000 people as an example of green architecture.


Shawn was a National Merit Scholar who graduated a year early from high school and attended the University of Minnesota at age 16.  He is an Eagle Scout and a member of Mensa and Phi Beta Kappa.  He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Macalester College, where he also taught while a student.  He is a veteran political consultant, strategist and manager of political campaigns.

Shawn Otto grew up in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA, a small suburb immediately West of Minneapolis. His mother, Lilly, is an immigrant from Berlin, Germany and his father, Allan, a native of Minneapolis. Shawn was the second of four children, and the only boy.

His older sister, Suli, was physically and mentally handicapped and Shawn began studying architecture as a pre-teen in order to design homes that could better accommodate her wheelchair and other special needs. Suli died a few days after his fourteenth birthday. His two younger sisters are Simone and Sonia. Simone is studying for a PhD in neuroscience and Sonia works in the insurance industry. Shawn also has two sisters from Allan's second marriage to Carolyn Ludwig, Erika, a professional photographer, and Kristen, a journal editor for a gifted children education organization.

Otto enjoys scuba diving, snorkeling, cross-country skiing, backpacking, canoe treks in the Boundary Waters, mountain hiking, world travel, sailing, snorkeling, great cuisine, a good book, a great movie, a good conversation, beautiful art, fine wine, great writing, amazing science, woodworking, and family.