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.
Olivier embodies the ethos of Voice of Young Science – making sure your voice is heard in public discussions about science and evidence regardless of the hostility faced, especially when those discussions start to go sideways. Ilaina talked to Olivier about his experiences while standing up against vitamin C injections as a cancer treatment, his work on Le Pharmacien, and the advice he has for early career researchers and scientists who are looking to get involved in public discussions.
Ilaina Khairulzaman: Why did you originally want to become a pharmacist?
Olivier Bernard: Wow, that’s a good question! I’ve loved science ever since I was a very young kid. I was really nerdy, so I always knew I would go into something science-related. I really liked chemistry in high school, and I also liked healthcare, so I thought that pharmacy would be a good mix.
IK: Since you’ve started speaking out against vitamin C injections for cancer treatment, do you think this reason has changed? Has it changed your motivations?
OB: The part I love the most about being a pharmacist has always been communication. I love talking to people, trying to understand what their challenges are in regards to health and why people think certain things. When I started doing science communication, it was to try and resolve those challenges. The vitamin C issue reassured me how important it is for healthcare professionals to take their science communication role seriously – very few healthcare professionals speak out publicly about science.
In graduate school, I had to present posters and do oral presentations, I had to do all that stuff, but there was no training for it. So you figure it out as you’re doing it, you don’t spend a lot of time working on your communication skills, whereas you spend a lot of time working on your clinical skills. The vitamin C issue showed a lot of people how important it is that scientists take their place in public discussions.
IK: On the topic of the vitamin C injections, were alternative therapies an area that had always bothered you, or was there a defining moment when you thought “hang on a second this a real problem”?
OB: I’ve always been fascinated by alternative therapies. I think I was in graduate school when I first learned about homeopathy; that must have been one of the first times when I thought, “That makes no sense at all.”
Ten years on, when I decided to start doing science communication, it was obvious to me that the first thing I wanted to talk about was alternative therapies. It’s not that I hate alternative therapies, but I hate when people don’t get access to the evidence, to the facts and when people get exploited. Of course, people are free to take supplements that are not working or treatments that are not science proven, but I take issue when corporations don’t give people all the information
For me it’s all about informed consent. We talk a lot about consent but to have informed consent; you need to give full information to the patient. So if someone comes to me saying they want to try this supplement I need to tell them that there’s no evidence to back it up and it might be dangerous. Then the patient can decide if they still want to take it. Some healthcare professionals, they don’t say that, they say sure try it, and I’m not fine with that approach.
IK: When and why did you feel you had to stand up against these vitamin C injections?
OB: At first when some of my readers told me about a petition that was becoming very popular – asking to approve and fund vitamin C injections to treat cancer – I thought I’ll just write an article on my website about it. For me, it was just one topic amongst many that I write about on my website.
But after that, the petition kept rising in popularity. I realised that most people weren’t aware of how dishonest it was. Then celebrities and public figures started supporting it, again not asking themselves the right questions about the treatment.
If there was a defining moment, it was when a politician in Quebec decided to support the petition, wanting to take it directly to the government. I couldn’t accept it. Even though it was several months after I wrote my original article, that’s when I went all in because it was getting serious – the government was about to take decisions on a treatment that is not backed up by science and nobody seemed to care what the facts were. They were just interested because the petition was popular. For me, science isn’t about popularity, it’s about evidence.
IK: The award you are winning today is for people in the early stages of their career. Do you think standing up for science is something that a lot of early stage researchers in Canada do, or do you think they feel like it may not be their place?
OB: I think it’s changing, we hear from early career researchers a lot more now. I don’t often hear people who are early in their career say, “Well, it’s not really my place to talk”; I do hear a lot of people say, “I want to do it but don’t know how.”
Sometimes they come to me for advice and say, “I’d like to do communication myself, where should I start, what should I do?”
The barrier – feeling like you don’t have enough experience – is starting to breakdown, in Quebec at least.
IK: Why do you think early career researchers or scientists should stand up for science?
OB: First of all if we don’t speak, somebody else will speak instead of us. We see it in all aspects of science, even climate change. Sometimes there are climate science deniers featured in the media. If scientists don’t speak out publicly, then other people will just speak instead of them.
Another reason is that I think if you’re younger, if you’re in your early career, then you can speak to people your age or your generation. Sometimes it’s hard to relate to an older scientist who you feel you don’t have much in common with.
Some of the best science communicators I have met over the last few years were at graduate school, people who were doing their PhD and were amazing communicators. I never hesitate; I invite them on my TV show because I think they are amazing and they often respond, “Are you sure? Shouldn’t it be the head of my department?” No! You are awesome, and when people hear you they will relate to you!
You don’t have to wait until you’re a professor. Just go ahead and do your own thing – don’t ask for permission.
IK: What would be your one piece of big advice for people in their early stages of their career who also want to stand up for science?
OB: I give courses right now to scientists and healthcare professionals about what we can do as scientists to stand up for science given the current environment that can be hostile to us. There are tonnes of things we can do. First of all, we can stop accepting bad information circulating. When the media coverage is bad on a topic and you have expertise, you need to do something about it. Write to the media, write an open letter. I work in media now, so I know that it does have an effect If it doesn’t work, you can make complaints to the national broadcasting authority.
When there is something online that is not, right you can report it. When you see your friends sharing something, you can enter the discussion and explain what you know. I think there are many different things we can do at an individual level. We can also do things in the policy sphere. We all have local representatives in local councils. That’s what I did for the vitamin C issue; I wrote to the local politician and I was persistent.
IK: Last question, what is next for you?
OB: I’ve finished filming the fourth season of my TV show on scientific scepticism and evidence-based healthcare. I just finished filming last week and it’s going to be on air from December to February. I write on my website, publish comics and run courses. I leave myself open to anything cool that comes up. I kind of go with the flow. I’m a pharmacist too when I have time.
Edited for length and clarity.
Published: 20 November 2019