Two courageous scientists, forest fire expert Bambang Hero Saharjo and pharmacist Olivier Bernard, awarded the 2019 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science
Bambang Hero Saharjo, who is the Indonesian lead expert witness on environmentally catastrophic peatland fires has been awarded the 2019 John Maddox Prize for his courage and integrity in standing up for sound science in the face of harassment, intimidation, and law suits. The judges awarded a further prize, for exceptional communication of evidence by someone early in their career, to Olivier Bernard, a Canadian pharmacist who challenged high dose vitamin C injections for cancer patients.
Prof. Dr. Ir. H. Bambang Hero Saharjo, Bogor Agricultural University, is the foremost expert on illegal and destructive forest and land fires in Indonesia, and the winner of the 2019 Maddox Prize. Peatland forest fires, which are often started by companies who want to clear land cheaply and quickly, including palm oil companies, cause enormous environmental damage; up to 5 September, global fires this year have released more carbon dioxide than annual emissions from the EU and Japan combined. They are also incredibly dangerous, recent Indonesian fires are said by Unicef to be putting 10 million children at risk. Bambang’s expertise allows him to trace the route and source of fires and he has testified in 500 court cases investigating fires. He has also helped local groups to understand the evidence about health and environmental damage. In 2015 Bambang’s testimony was instrumental in palm oil company JJP’s guilty verdict; in 2018 they filed a $33.5 million lawsuit (SLAPP) against him on a technicality. He continues to testify and stand up for the Indonesian people’s constitutional right to a healthy environment, one of the very few scientists in his field who are prepared to do so.
Olivier Bernard, a pharmacist from Quebec, has been awarded the John Maddox Prize for an early career researcher for standing up to alternative health proponents who lobbied for the government to “approve and reimburse” high dose vitamin C injections for cancer patients, which have no basis in evidence. Olivier spoke out repeatedly, describing the scientific evidence and speaking directly to politicians and affected groups. He endured a campaign of harassment, including complaints to his employer and professional body, revealing the address of the pharmacy where he works, a smear campaign, calls for a boycott of his wife’s books, as well as death threats to him and his family. He stood up to this barrage of harassment, and his strength in speaking out has resulted in the creation of a government taskforce to protect scientists who speak on sensitive topics, and an inter-professional advisory committee to support healthcare professionals who speak publicly.
The John Maddox Prize, now in its eighth year, is a joint initiative of the charity Sense about Science, which promotes the public interest in sound science and evidence, and the leading international scientific journal Nature, and is awarded to one or two people a year. This year there were 206 nominations from 38 countries.
There were nominations relating to research conduct, publishing and integrity. While judges felt that other nominations more strongly satisfied the public, rather than professional, communication criteria, they wanted to draw attention to the extraordinary contribution made over the past year by Elisabeth Bik of Science Integrity Digest, finding about two-thirds of duplicated images in biomedical papers appear to have been duplicated on purpose; and by Ivan Oransky, Retraction Watch, over many years, in highlighting the retraction of published papers. They also commended the work of James Heathers, of Northeastern University USA, an early career researcher who was nominated for his work on the GRIM test – a simple statistical test of whether results are accurately reported – and his publicity about the limitations of reported research through @justsaysinmice.
The judges said that a number of nominees, including the winners, had notably persevered in communicating about science and evidence at a point when things became incredibly difficult and silence would have been the easiest option – or was an option taken by others in the field. For this, they wanted to recognise:
- Malegapuru William Makgoba, acclaimed for his challenge to AIDS denial in South Africa, went on to expose and improve the treatment of mentally ill patients in South Africa.
- Marc Edwards for his work in the 2001 – 2004 lead water crisis in Washington DC and, more recently, his initial reports exposing the Flint water crisis in Michigan, USA.
- Jane Hutton, who advocated for the transparency of statistical evidence behind claims about the deficit faced by the UK’s USS pension scheme, which has drawn attention to the wider issue that many statistical models on which the public depends are obscured from public scrutiny.
- While the conduct of research is not directly within the remit of the prize, the judges wished to record the nomination of Niloufar Bayani, Taher Ghadirian, Houman Jokar, Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Sam Rajabi, and Morad Tahbaz who have been in prison in Iran on espionage charges related to the setting of camera traps for tracking the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah and encourage international support for their cause.
Bambang Hero Saharjo: “I still do not believe that I am receiving the prestigious John Maddox Prize. Only last year I was criminalised for presenting evidence and being forced to pay nearly rp.510 billion by the palm oil companies, who had been found guilty of preparing to plant palms by burning 1000 hectares of peatland. Finally the lawsuit was rejected and I am free. Using fire for land preparation is so destructive to the environment and it is destroying the health of local people. This is what the evidence shows. The prize will give me more power to say it and to fight the misrepresentation by companies who continue use of fire.”
Olivier Bernard: “I was extremely surprised and extremely grateful to be a recipient of the John Maddox Prize! Some of my professional role models have won it in the past, so it’s an immense honour. Throughout the controversy surrounding vitamin C injections in Quebec, I have learned that scientific decisions made by political entities can be easily swayed by interest groups. I’ve also learned that fighting for science can be stressful and scary, and may even come at a personal price. But defenders of science cannot afford to stay in the background. I vow to use this award as an opportunity to engage more people and scientists in defending science publicly, and to show them that even if it can be difficult to do so, the positive outcomes far outweigh the negatives ones.”
Tracey Brown OBE, director, Sense about Science and judge: “Our winners exemplify the spirit of the Maddox prize. In Bambang and Olivier we see people standing up for the rights of their fellow citizens and championing the value of scientific reasoning for us all. They saw the easier path of silence or complicity and rejected it to take responsibility for communicating evidence. Our winners are an example of what can be achieved by one person, standing up against misinformation and corruption. We have seen a rapid increase in the global nominations for the Maddox prize. That tells you something about the need to recognize people who take such responsibility.”
Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief, Nature, and judge: “We received many excellent nominations this year from such an inspiring group of candidates, all of whom are making great strides in their area. This year’s winners were chosen for their exceptional efforts in raising awareness of issues they are passionate about and for which they have faced criticism and adversity in striving for evidence-based policy and practices. The John Maddox Prize recognises and rewards those who stand up for scientific rigour and we are delighted to be awarding it this year to two notable and dedicated campaigners.”
Lord (Martin) Rees of Ludlow OM FRS, University of Cambridge and judge: “Rain forests are under threat, but their preservation matters to all of us who care about climate and biodiversity. So it’s right that we should acclaim a man who seized the chance to really make a difference – by persistent and effective campaigning against powerful interests.”
Natasha Loder, The Economist and judge: “This year we were particularly impressed with the wide range of nominations we received, which came from 38 countries and an array of disciplines. There are some powerful stories here, our winners show what one individual, armed with a scientific approach, can achieve.”
Professor Sir Colin Blakemore FRS, professor of neuroscience & philosophy, School of Advanced Study, University of London and judge: “For more senior scientists or journalists, the fight against misrepresentation and prejudice takes courage and conviction. But for a younger person, standing up for the truth can mean risking a career. Olivier Bernard’s crusade against the cruel deception of those who peddle vitamin C injections to vulnerable cancer sufferers is a remarkable example of personal commitment to the fight for honesty and integrity in the application of science.”
Anin Luo, early career biophysicist, Yale University, and judge: “I think that the early-career category is critical because we should speak up about evidence not just when tenured or secure in professional life—it should be encouraged from the very beginning. Encouraging those at an early stage of their career to stand up for science is critical in bringing about a culture change in communicating scientific evidence.”
Sir Patrick Vallance, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) and Head of the Government Science and Engineering (GSE) profession: “The two recipients of the Maddox prize have shown incredible bravery by standing up for the science, even in very testing circumstances. We can only have confidence in policy when it is informed by the very best science which it is why it is vital that scientists have the courage to speak out. These two are inspirational.”
The prize is run and funded by Sense about Science, where Sir John Maddox was a founding trustee, and Nature, where he was editor for over 20 years, with support from Clare and Andrew Lyddon.