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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.