Each year Sense about Science in partnership with Nature awards the John Maddox Prize to those that have promoted sound science and evidence despite hostility. This year’s winners are Anthony Fauci and Salim S. Abdool Karim, key government health advisors for the United States of America and South Africa.
They also have a third winner. Associate Professor Anne Abbott was awarded the early career prize.
beyond even that there are commendations to take note of.
More on the winners in a moment. First, a bit more about the prize.
This is not simply a polite hand clap for a good job. What makes this specific award interesting is that it is given to people who face hostility, but don’t bend, instead they take a principled stand for scientific truth.
Who was John Maddox?
Sir John Maddox, whose name this prize commemorates, was a passionate and tireless champion and defender of science, engaging with difficult debates and inspiring others to do the same. As a writer and editor, he changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove for better understanding and appreciation of science throughout his long working life.
“Denouncing fearlessly what he believed to be wrong, dishonest or shoddy, he changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove throughout his long working life for a better public understanding and appreciation of science.” – Walter Gratzer
I’ve written about previous winners in past years …
- 2015 : Professor Edzard Ernst – Prince Charles tried to have him silenced and fired, but he stood for what the scientific evidence was telling him was true. He doggedly pursued the argument that there is only one kind of medicine – medicine that works. Advocates of complementary medicine such as Prince Charles hated him for this.
- 2017 : Riko Muranaka – She took a stance against a public campaign of misinformation regarding the HPV anti-cancer vaccine in Japan. She not only had to cope with public insults from anti-vaccine advocates, but also litigation, and attempts to undermine her status as an academic. Not speaking out would have been easy, but instead she took a principled stand.
- 2018 : two joint winners. Both promoted science and evidence on matters of public interest, despite smears, threats and attempted lawsuits.
I’ve personally met Britt Hermes and also Professor Edzard Ernst, and I can indeed confirm their passion and principled stance. I’ve also followed the work of Professor Terry Hughes and have written about his insights over the years (for example here).
You can find a lot more about past winners on the Sense About Science website … here.
The 2020 Winners
There are 3 winners in 2020, not two.
Anthony Fauci is receiving the prize in recognition of his work to help the public understand both the science behind complex and controversial public health issues, and how the nature of science influences government responses. While other government scientists have avoided the spotlight, he has steadfastly responded to questions from the public.
In South Africa Salim S. Abdool Karim showed similar dedication. He has a reputation for clear and honest communication, something that has allowed him to generate public trust in fast-moving science. Respected for his international science advocacy, engaging with the media and the public has become integral to his role as a scientist. The enormous achievements of Karim and Fauci call back to their work tackling AIDS. Over 30 years ago, Fauci oversaw much of the US government’s medical response to the AIDS crisis, while in the early 2000s Karim was one of one of the scientists who spoke out against AIDS denialism.
The third winner for 2020 is Associate Professor Anne Abbott. She is a neurologist from the Central Clinical School at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia was awarded the early career prize for her perseverance in challenging traditional medical treatment of carotid stenosis, which can lead to strokes, and communicating new evidence that showed the potential to move away from unnecessary clinical interventions and procedures. Abbott encountered strong opposition as she attempted to publicise her research findings, but continued to challenge the status quo at personal cost, placing patients’ health and public knowledge first.
In response to COVID the judges would also like to recognise the extraordinary efforts to communicate the initial stages of the novel coronavirus both by Ai Fen and Li Wenliang. These doctors from Wuhan General Hospital went above and beyond to communicate their concerns about the presence of a novel Coronavirus, particularly when considering the positions they were in and consequences they were likely to face. They feel that both these doctors require recognition for this effort, Ai Fen in having initiated the communication to her colleagues and thereby ‘distributing the whistles’ and Li Wenliang’s efforts, as he was dying of COVID-19, to communicate to the world his treatment and suppression.
Judges commended the work of Donato Boscia, head of the Bari unit of the CNR Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection (IPSP) in Italy, for continuing to identify and explain the Xylella fastifiosa outbreak decimating the olive industry in Italy despite facing lawsuits and a smear campaign that he started the outbreak.
They commended the work of Lucas Garibaldi, Director of IRNAD, for his engagement with agribusiness in Argentina to explain the evidence for more sustainable farming practices.
They also commended the work of Brian Earp in the controversial field of genital cutting in children for taking a multi-disciplined, science-based approach to a deep-rooted cultural practice.
Comments by the 2020 winners
I am deeply honoured to receive the 2020 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science, jointly with Dr Anthony Fauci. Having scientifically challenged AIDS denialism over two decades, the Covid-19 pandemic turned out to be a much more complex challenge. Providing scientific advice on Covid-19 in the midst of uncertainty and anxiety proved to be a difficult path but one that was readily achieved by staying true to scientific evidence without bending to ideology or vested interests. Serving the public by promoting science, evidence and public discussion during two pandemics has been a privilege.Salim Abdool Karim
The other [thing that I have learnt] is to tell the truth at all times and do everything that is science-based and evidence-based. And sometimes the truth means saying ‘I do not know’Anthony Fauci
My main feeling is one of relief – that I have been able to share something of the unexpected difficulties I have faced in simply doing my job as a patient advocate. There is also a sense of empowerment to address other barriers to improving patient outcomes globally. I am very glad the Maddox Prize initiative exists. It imparts new hopeAnne Abbott