The John Maddox Prize – given for taking a bold scientific stance

John Maddox, the chap who passed away in 2009 and is being honoured by having this prize named after him.

You might perhaps have never heard about the John Maddox Prize, and so you might be inclined to think … “The What?”. This however is special.

First, lets run over the background to it all.

Why would they specifically do that, and who is John Maddox?

OK, so what is the prize all about?

Well, the page on the Sense About Science website that describes it explains …

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.

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.

It 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 humour 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 key to this, the aspect that makes it really quite interesting, is that it is focused on folks who have taken a stance for truth despite the consequences of doing so, and so they focus on those who are …

  • Addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues.
  • Bringing sound evidence to bear in a public or policy debate.
  • Helping people to make sense of a complex scientific issue.

Starting in 2012, the award has been given out each year and is announced in November. Hint: check your calendar, yes, it is now November and so this years winners have been announced.

Who has won the 2015 John Maddox Prize?

We have two very well deserved winners …

On the left we have Professor Edzard Ernst …

… recognised for his long commitment to applying scientific methodologies in research into complementary and alternative medicines and to communicating this need. Prof Ernst continued in his work despite personal attacks and attempts to undermine his research unit and end his employment. As a result, he has addressed a significant gap in the research base in this field and has brought insights into discussions with the public, policy makers, commentators, practitioners and other researchers. 

On the right we have Professor Susan Jebb …

… recognised for her promotion of public understanding of nutrition on a diverse range of issues of public concern, from food supplements to dieting. Prof Jebb tackled misconceptions about sugar in the media and among the public, and endured personal attacks and accusations that industry funding compromised her integrity and advisory capabilities. Despite this experience, she continued to engage with the media and the public on issues of dietary advice, talking about the need for sound science and high quality research, and advocating for high standards of research governance. 

The Press picked it up

The UKs Independent wrote a great article on it all, with a title of “John Maddox Prize: Scientist who once claimed Prince Charles tried to silence him wins for ‘standing up for science’“, I suspect a few names might be now dropped off Prince Charles’s christmas card list, which to be frank is an honour in itself, our future king is a bit of a pro-CAM anti-science nut.

Within the Independent article they go into a lot more detail on the stance that Professor Edzard Ernst took, what that cost him personally, and then conclude with two great quotes …

Sir Colin Blakemore, an Oxford neuroscientist and judge, said: “Edzard Ernst, rightly known as the ‘scourge of complementary medicine’, has doggedly pursued the argument that there is only one kind of medicine – medicine that works.”

Cambridge astronomer Lord Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society and fellow judge, said: “Society should be grateful to scientists who scrutinise the science – or pseudo-science – underlying controversial issues and are prepared to engage with the public. Such people often get more flak than praise.”

They also expand upon what happened to Professor Jebb.

They are both well deserved receivers of this award, and it is indeed wholly appropriate to applaud those who, when they came under personal attack, refused to back down and stood firm.

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