The Sometimes Perilous Business of Standing Up for Science: The John Maddox Prize

September 15, 2016 Chris Peters

2016 John Maddox prize advert after nominations close.jpgThe John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science recognizes the work of extraordinary people who promote sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty or hostility in doing so. The prize has been running for six years now, and every year we have seen a steady rise in the number of people nominated. While we welcome these entries, and the opportunity for recognition that they offer, it is also a wake-up call to all of us in the scientific community that many of our colleagues around the world are facing true jeopardy in the course of pursuing their work. It is also a much needed reminder that so-called “public engagement” can be combative and difficult, especially when science meets an area of troubled public discourse. The effects of this are wide ranging — some nominees have been the target of personal abuse and smear campaigns, others have lost their jobs, a few have even received death threats.

The Man Behind the Prize

Sir John was an inspirational figure to many. A passionate and tireless communicator and defender of science, he engaged with difficult debates, inspiring others to do the same. The prize pays tribute to the attitude of Sir John who, in the words of his friend Walter Gratzer: “wrote prodigiously on all that was new and exciting in scientific discovery and technological advance, denouncing fearlessly what he believed to be wrong, dishonest or shoddy. He did it with humor and grace, but he never sidestepped controversy, which he seemed in fact to relish. His forthrightness brought him some enemies, often in high places, but many more friends. He changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove throughout his long working life for a better public understanding and appreciation of science.” The prize is a joint initiative of Nature, where Sir John was editor for 22 years; the Kohn Foundation, whose founder Sir Ralph Kohn was a personal friend of Sir John's, particularly through their Fellowship of the Royal Society; and Sense About Science, where Sir John served as a trustee until his death in 2009.

Recent Prize Winners and Their Stories

Ernst_-_Campbell_-_Jebb_-_for_web.jpgLast year, the prize was awarded to two individuals who had faced hugely damaging attacks on their professional character as a result of challenging misinformation in their own areas of research. Professor Edzard Ernst criticized a report on complementary medicine commissioned by Prince Charles in 2005, which suggested that complementary and alternative medicine was cost effective and should be available on the NHS, as “complete misleading rubbish”. His comments provoked an angry letter from Prince Charles’ secretary Sir Michael Peat citing a “breach of confidence” in commenting about a draft report that had not yet been published. What followed was described by Professor Ernst as “the most unpleasant period of my entire professional life” and one which subsequently led to his early retirement.

Sharing the prize in 2015 with Professor Ernst was nutrition expert Professor Susan Jebb, who has been at the forefront of speaking out about sugar and was among the first to suggest a “sugar tax” as a method to reduce the amount of sugary foods being eaten. Professor Jebb faced accusations in the media of being paid by the food industry, despite Jebb receiving no personal remuneration and being completely open about her industry-sponsored research.

Sir Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature and a member of the judging panel, summed it up neatly when he said, “Both of them have felt the intense heat of influential opposition and have stood by their views, at who-knows-what cost to themselves.”

The winner of the 2016 John Maddox Prize will be announced on Thursday, November 17th at the Sense about Science annual reception. Follow the announcement and discussion at #MaddoxPrize and help support all those extraordinary people who stand up for science despite facing adversity.

Chris Peters is the Scientific Affairs Manager at Sense about Science.

Image credit: Chris Peters


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