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July 2015

John Maddox Prize - Guest post by Dr Thelma Lovick

Dr Thelma Lovick, who nominated John Maddox Prize winner Profesor David Nutt in 2013, writes about the Prize.

I forget how I heard about the John Maddox Prize. Probably an e-mail arrived one day and I was sufficiently intrigued to click on a link leading to the webpage explaining what the Prize was for. What I do remember is that, having read the criteria for the Prize, I knew immediately who the winner should be. David Nutt ticked all the boxes.

David Nutt was catapulted into the public eye in 2009 when he was publicly sacked from his position as Chairman of the Government’s Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). His misdemeanor had been to publish a rational, evidence-based report on the safety of recreational drugs, which did not fit with Government policy.

The resulting media storm led to him being pilloried in the sensationalist tabloid press. Miles of column and web-based inches appeared. Lesser individuals might have crumbled, but not David. The “humiliation” spurred him to fight back. He now gives freely of his time to provide the public with the information it needs to make informed decisions about drugs based on facts, rather than preconceived ideas about drug use based on moral and political opinions or social acceptability. Few are prepared to put their heads above the parapet in this manner; it has been no mean undertaking. David Nutt’s scientific integrity and courage in addressing misleading information about scientific or medical issues in the face of hefty opposition are to be applauded.

I was thrilled when he won the prize. I am also thrilled that such a prize exists. I hope that the award of this prize to David Nutt will inspire others to stand up for their own science. “The strongest man is he who stands alone” (Ibsen, Enemy of the People).

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.

Read Prof David Nutt's post about winning the Maddox Prize. 

John Maddox Prize - Guest post by Professor Anthony David

Professor Anthony David, who nominated John Maddox Prize winner Profesor Sir Simon Wessely in 2012, writes about the Prize.

The John Maddox Prize was inaugurated in 2012. There was no precedent. It was not possible to say what sort of person tended to win the prize and what effect it tended to have on their careers and standing. I fully imagined that this prize, recognising as it does, standing up for science in a sustained and consistent way against obstacles and for little personal reward other than the benefits to society and science as a whole, would represent the pinnacle of a person’s career to be followed by a period of gradual decline in celebrity and gentle well-earned obscurity.  

So, what happened next? In 2013, Professor Wessely was knighted for his services to military healthcare and psychological medicine. In 2014 he was elected President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. It’s been a fairly busy couple of years. Sir Simon is rarely out of the papers and the news standing up as he does for psychiatry as a discipline and the welfare of people with mental illness and for a generally more educated and tolerant society with respect to mental health.  The area of research that led Sir Simon to clash with a minority of patient activists in the contentious area of chronic fatigue/ME remains fraught but with steady progress being made in research which combines physical and psychological approaches to treatment. Sir Simon’s prominence shows that his willingness to put his head above the parapet, which earned him the John Maddox Prize, is an enduring trait and not a flash in the pan.

What happened next has therefore been, for Simon, the antithesis of a quiet retreat from public discourse. No time for leisurely reflection on a life of achievement but a full-on engagement and upward progression. Still, I would contend that, amidst all the recent honours and awards and those yet to come, the John Maddox Prize, for what it represents and says about the recipient, does remain the pinnacle of any glittering career.

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.

Read Prof Sir Simon Wessely's post about winning the Maddox Prize. 

John Maddox Prize - Guest post by Sir Simon Wessely

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Chair of Psychological Medicine, King’s College London and President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, writes about the John Maddox Prize, which he won in 2012.

It was the 16th October 2012 and a meeting of the senior clinical academic leaders at King’s Health Partners was coming to an end. It had not been the most scintillating of gatherings, largely concerned with the usual things that these meetings discuss – funding and the lack of it, space and its absence, bureaucracy and its ever increasing presence. And like many around the table I was inconspicuously checking my emails, when I uttered an involuntary expletive. Fortunately not of the Prince Philip variety, but any spontaneous sound was bound to attract attention. The Chair, Robert Lechler, raised his eyebrows. “Is anything wrong, Simon?” “No, not at all, I have just won a prize from Nature”. Robert’s eyebrows rose even higher, partly because he had misheard me saying “I have just got a paper in Nature”, which would have been truly epochal. “Jolly good,” he said, and the meeting returned to considering more important issues, such as trying and failing to understand the NHS reforms.

But for me this really was, and indeed still is, important, not least because it was so unexpected. The letter, from the wonderful Sense About Science, informed me that I had just won the first John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science, what the prize was and why it was named after the former editor of Nature.

               “Sir John Maddox wrote prodigiously, expatiating on all that was new and exciting in scientific discovery and technological advance, denouncing fearlessly what he believed to be erroneous, 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 through his long working life for a better public understanding and appreciation of science. The John Maddox Prize will, we believe, form a fitting memorial to the man and his work”

The prize was to be shared with the Chinese campaigning journalist Fang Shi-min, who had certainly earned it rather more than I had. He was not surprisingly unable to be present at the award ceremony which followed a few weeks later, although he did record a video message. I was asked to give a short speech, during which I announced that I would be giving half of the cheque that went with the Keep Libel Out of Science campaign, which got a big cheer, and the other half towards renewing my Chelsea season ticket, which didn’t. The awesome knowledge of science present in the room was not matched by their knowledge of football.

The citation for the prize made it clear that I had been honoured because of my work in the field of unexplained syndromes in general, and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) in particular. This was and still is an area in which not just angels, but many doctors and scientists fear to tread. I hope that will change, and that in future working in CFS will no longer attract the attention of the Judges of the John Maddox Prize. CFS was and still is an important area for medical research, and I hope that my own example shows that contrary to the belief of many doctors, it is not career ending to get involved in this or any other controversial area. Science thrives on controversy – embrace it, do not shy away from it. True, it is easier when dispute and debate is conducted in a tolerant and open minded atmosphere and even within the febrile atmosphere of CFS I have corresponded with many who can distinguish between disagreement and abuse. But sadly this is not the norm in more public spaces. I also know from the personal experience that comes from meeting now several thousand patients over a 30 year clinical career, that they have little in common with the vociferous minority who can give the subject a bad name. But perhaps I should be more grateful, since without the efforts of the latter, I would not have had the great honour of being awarded the John Maddox Prize.

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.

John Maddox Prize - Guest Post by Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle, who nominated Maddox Prize winner Emily Willingham in 2014, writes about the Prize.

I don't recall which specific research I was doing online that brought me to the Sense About Science website the first time – it may have been something about celebrities – but I have since returned multiple times for the site's resources. My biggest broad beat as a journalist is evidence-based medicine, and the site is one of many in my toolbox for reporting. So it was on one of my various returns to the site that I happened to see a post about the John Maddox Prize.

As I read the description for nominations, Emily Willingham, a colleague and friend, immediately jumped into my mind. Dr Willingham has been a mentor and friend ever since I tracked her down online after reading some incredibly insightful blog posts of hers. As I read more of her work and got to know her better, I learned a great deal about autism, evidence-based medicine, interpreting studies and, unfortunately, dealing with online trolls. Dr Willingham suffers no fools online, but she has suffered, largely due to the particularly vicious attacks from others about her family, including her autistic son.

Given the hardships she endured with these nasty comments, few could have blamed her had she stopped writing about autism, particularly after some national tragedies that led to greater misconceptions about the condition. But she pressed on, insisting on correcting misinformation and providing essential evidence and context about autism, vaccines, mental illness, and other areas of public interest. Her fortitude impressed and inspired me, as it did others, and she was a natural choice for the Maddox Prize.

I was thrilled, of course, that the committee agreed with me that she was a worthy recipient. Ironically, however, it was not long after she received word of the award that she had decided to leave journalism for the security of an industry job with benefits. And yet, as I write this, she has left that job and returned to her passion in journalism, still correcting misinformation, still beating back the trolls, and still ensuring that the public has someone to rely on for evidence-based information and reliable reporting. As the book that Dr Willingham and I co-authored together is released next April, I will be not only be proud of our effort on that project together, but I will also be grateful for the opportunity to work with Dr Willingham and learn much from her.

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.

Read Dr Emily Willingham's post about winning the Maddox Prize.

John Maddox Prize - Guest post by Emily Willingham

Emily Willingham, who was a John Maddox Prize winner in 2014, writes about the Prize.

I won’t forget the day I learned that I’d been awarded the Maddox Prize, and that’s not only because of the huge honor it confers. The morning I woke to the email that I’d been selected for the honor was also the day of my grandmother’s funeral. She had died a few days before, with all of her grandchildren around her, at the age of 95 after living for six-plus decades with multiple sclerosis.

That description of her probably calls to mind an image of a frail elderly woman who inched her way over the years toward a late death, but that image couldn’t be more inaccurate. Even as she died, through some ineffable force of will, she created around her the environment that she wanted. Somehow in her unconscious state, she still managed to repurpose a group of people who represented the faith spectrum from atheist to evangelist into a group of singing, Bible-reading celebrators, drinking wine as the evening drew on and attending her in the way she liked best as she literally drew her last breaths.

So the morning of her funeral, I woke in my sister’s house and, as always, reached for my phone to use email and social media messages as a pre-caffeine jolt into wakefulness. This tactic usually works because often the missives include a screed or accusatory comment from someone who disagrees with what I write. Indeed, one morning months earlier, I had reached for the phone and gotten the news of a threatened lawsuit that later formed the basis for my nominations for this prize.

That jolt was not nearly so pleasant or welcome, for obvious reasons, as the news that I was receiving this honor. Even on an average day, that email would have been a thrill. As it was, I didn’t even bother to change out of my nightgown — which sported a coffee-drinking moose in house slippers saying, “I don’t do mornings” (true) — before I rushed to my startled sister to tell her the news. It seemed most fitting given the loss we’d shared only a few days before that she’d be among the first to learn this good news.

My grandmother was like my third parent, someone who was part of almost every day of my childhood. Since her death, I’ve thought in the context of that loss about withstanding comments and attacks that are personal and abusive and sometimes threatening just because the commenter disagrees with me. I’ve figured out that the spirit that led my grandmother to teach for years and volunteer in churches and hospitals for decades while she was in a wheelchair, the spirit that led her to lobby relentlessly and successfully for gardens and amenities and services for everyone to enjoy in her assisted-living facilities, the spirit that made her strong-willed and difficult and able to power indomitably through six decades of a degenerative neurological illness—that spirit was a gift that she gave and left to me.   

I find it fitting that the day we laid that powerful spirit to rest, I received notice that the gift she imparted to me had led to this honor. I hope to continue to honor that spirit by maintaining, as best I can, the strength and backbone she showed throughout her life, and I conjure her in my mind when I need to remind myself of what strength really looks like. 

Nominations for the 2015 John Maddox Prize for standing up for science are now open and close on 20 August 2015.