January 17, 2020

Recognising those who stand up for science in the face of adversity– The John Maddox Prize 2019

By Joanna Chustecki
MIBTP Birmingham - 2017 cohort

On the 12th December 2019, Sense about Science and Nature hosted the John Maddox Prize, an award recognising scientists that stand up for evidence and scientific vigour in the face of adversity, misinformation and criticism. I attended the evening at the Wellcome Collection in London as a member of the Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network, a vocal and dynamic group of early career researchers who are committed to addressing public misconceptions of science by speaking to journalists, policy makers and the public to stand up for and provide evidence on key issues.

As an intern for Sense about Science during my first year of the MIBTP Doctoral Training Program, I was keen to stay in touch with the team, and to find out more about the John Maddox Prize. The prize commemorates Sir John Maddox, former editor of Nature, a founding trustee of Sense about Science, and a relentless communicator and defender of scientific process. In his memory, the award is given to those working on issues where the available science is the inconvenient truth.

Awarded to two individuals each year, one to a person at an early stage in their career; the prize highlights vital work going on around the world to face up to those who dismiss, reject or deliberately suppress evidence. Prof. Bambang Hero Saharjo of Indonesia was awarded the prize this year for fighting relentlessly through major court cases and harassment to deliver evidence on the initiation of peatland fires, often by palm oil companies, and the risks these pose to the Indonesian population and to greenhouse gas emissions. During his speech, Prof. Saharjo spoke of what the award meant to him and how the support of his ‘new friends in London’ will help him continue to fight for scientific evidence in the face of corporate lobbyists. Particularly pertinent in the age of climate denial and environmental destruction for profit, for me it was a hopeful moment, and a chance to be reassured that there are experts out there continually fighting to get evidence heard and used to inform policy decisions.

The Early Career award was given to Olivier Bernard, from Quebec, who spoke out against alternative health proponents lobbying the government about the supposed benefits of Vitamin C injections for cancer patients. When he described the current scientific evidence showing no basis for the claims, he faced huge backlash from these groups, with them revealing the pharmacy at which he worked, sending complaints to his employers as well as threatening him and his family.

Olivier’s story has stuck with me as a show of true courage- especially for someone early in their career. As young scientists, it can be particularly daunting to face such a challenge, without the years of experience, reputation, and solid networks older researchers may benefit from. Olivier also showed that sometimes it can be an isolating process to go through this experience, and spoke about times when he felt that his safety, and that of his wife, were at risk.

The prize visibly meant a lot to the winners, an acknowledgment from the scientific community of the bravery and persistence they have shown. As it should for all those who were nominated. Each year Sense about Science and Nature receive more and more nominations from further and further afield. This shows a continuing struggle for researchers internationally to be heard on key topics. It also demonstrates that the backlash and struggle they face to debunk and counter false claims, misconceptions and suppression of evidence continue to be a massive hurdle to evidence-backed policy and public thought.

I would recommend young researchers, no matter what your background, to get involved with organisations such as VoYS and Sense About Science. For me, the experiences offered to PhDs who are willing to extend their boundaries outside of their home institutions can be invaluable. Helping to meet and greet guests, and having the chance to network with some of the UKs top journalists, publishers, researchers and policy makers was a fantastic opportunity for a PhD student. It’s also chance to connect with other young researchers, glean career advice and see the many different avenues they have taken through both public-facing roles and academia. Oh, and there’s always a chance to decompress and catch up at the pub afterwards!

If you’re interested in joining the VoYS network and connecting with other young researchers who can can provide the kind of support, advice and new ideas on how to communicate you research, or help debunk false claims you may come across in your career, visit their website for more information. I’d like to thank the Sense about Science team for having me on board, and for the other VoYS volunteers for making this such a fun and informative evening!

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