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Plant Science Panel

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'The Ugly Truth'

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2014 John Maddox Prize

Dr Emily Willingham and Dr David Robert Grimes are the two winners of the 2014 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science.

Emily Willingham

David Robert Grimes

The judges awarded the prize to freelance journalist Dr Emily Willingham and early career scientist Dr David Robert Grimes for courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so. The winners equally embody the spirit of the prize and, at this relatively early stage in their lives, have yet to receive recognition for their work bringing science and evidence to the public. Both Emily Willingham and David Grimes reflect Sir John Maddox’s passion for investigative journalism and for social engagement by young scientists.

David Grimes writes bravely on challenging and controversial issues, including nuclear power and climate change. He has persevered despite hostility and threats, such as on his writing about the evidence in the debate on abortion in Ireland. He does so while sustaining his career as a scientist at the University of Oxford.

Emily Willingham, a US writer, has brought discussion about evidence, from school shootings to home birth, to large audiences through her writing. She has continued to reach across conflict and disputes about evidence to the people trying to make sense of them. She is facing a lawsuit for an article about the purported link between vaccines and autism.

The Prize is a joint initiative of the science journal Nature, the Kohn Foundation, and the charity Sense About Science. The late Sir John Maddox, FRS, was editor of Nature for 22 years and a founding trustee of Sense About Science.

The judging panel consisted of Tracey Brown (Sense About Science), Professor Colin Blakemore FRS, Philip Campbell (Nature) and Lord Rees of Ludlow OM FRS. The judges sat in a personal capacity and the choice of the award does not indicate the view of any organisation. 

Dr David Robert Grimes, University of Oxford: “The paradox of our time is that while access to information on every topic imaginable has never been easier, this same freedom allows complete falsehoods to perpetuate further and faster than ever before. In everything from politics to healthcare, evidence is too frequently jettisoned, distorted or ignored to suit ideological biases, and misconceptions surrounding issues of science and evidence are incredibly detrimental to finding pragmatic solutions to the problems we face as a society; challenging these misunderstandings and confronting misinformation may often feel like a Sisyphean task, but it is vital. I am deeply humbled and honoured my contributions to public discussion on evidence-based policy have been recognised by such pioneers.”

Dr Emily Willingham: “Learning of this honor was a gratifying and humbling surprise. I'd like to express my deepest gratitude to both the people who invested time and effort to nominate me and the judges' panel for selecting me as one of the two recipients. Standing up for science and public health in the face of not only unyielding but also sometimes threatening opposition can be tiring and demoralizing, and this recognition is a welcome counterbalance that brings some positive perspective.”

Professor Colin Blakemore FRS, Universities of London and Oxford, and judge: “The number of applications for the John Maddox Prize continues to increase. We were impressed to see how many scientists are not just publishing their papers and teaching their students but taking their understanding of science outside the laboratory. It’s great to see researchers standing up for the significance of their own research, even if it brings them into conflict with business interests, political opposition or even the opinions of the scientific establishment. What made the two winners this year especially deserving is their work in many areas of public debate and their commitment to the general principle that manipulation of evidence for financial gain, personal prestige or political prejudice is not acceptable.  And both of them have pursued their passion for the truth, despite hostility and abuse.”

Tracey Brown, Director, Sense About Science and judge: “While they scored highly on a number of considerations, what particularly struck me about the winners was that they have seen public discussion as their responsibility, misinformation as their problem to solve. The Maddox prize takes into account the stage of someone’s career and what might be expected of that stage. It is a sign of progress that, three years in, those expectations are being raised considerably by the communication that is becoming normal in many regions. Even so, both winners have taken a level of social responsibility that still far exceeds expectations.”

 Lord Rees of Ludlow OM FRS, Cambridge University and judge: “Society should be grateful to scientists who use social media to explain the science underlying controversial issues. Such people often get more flak than praise. So it's excellent that we've been able to honour two outstanding exemplars with the Maddox Prize.”

Sir Ralph Kohn FRS of the Kohn Foundation: “This is such a well-deserved recognition of John’s outstanding scientific work for many years and we are privileged to be associated with this initiative.”

 Brenda Maddox, Patron of the John Maddox Prize: “My late husband John had an unusual combination of knowledge of science and eloquence of expression. Someone once asked him, ‘how much of what you print is wrong?’ referring to Nature. John answered immediately, ‘all of it. That's what science is about – new knowledge constantly arriving to correct the old.’ He led a supreme example of science journalism and others will do well to look to it.”

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society: “We live in complex times where some mix up science with ideology and politics. It is important for scientists to stand up for science and engage with public discussion, adhering to evidence and logical argument. The winners of this year’s John Maddox Prize have chosen to engage with the public on divisive and emotive issues, and will be an encouragement for others to do the same.” 

Daniel Murray, science teacher – nominator of David Robert Grimes: “I have received phone calls from a very distressed David Grimes late at night over death threats, looking for a second opinion about how to cope with threats to his livelihood and threats of physical harm against him. While David is no push over, the constant barrage of abuse does take its toll and it’s very brave of him to continue to speak out against scientific falsehoods in the media when he’s under no obligation to as a researcher.” 

Tara Haelle, science writer – nominator of Emily Willingham, with whom she is co-authoring a book on evidence-based parenting: “Dr Willingham disabuses the public of misinformation and misunderstanding regarding two particularly contentious areas of science as far as the public is concerned: vaccines and autism. In the process, she has faced lawsuits and personal attacks that go beyond insulting her personally and instead viciously strike at her family, particularly her oldest son, who has autism.”

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, author MMR and Autism: What Parents Need to Know and trustee of Sense About Science, responded to the news about Emily Willingham: “She has provided a particularly valuable service in confronting specious theories attributing autism to diverse environmental agents, from milk and vaccines to endocrine disrupters and maternal antibodies. She has also exposed quack treatments for autism and challenged ill-informed reports suggesting a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome as an explanation of the behaviour of serial killers (pointing out that people with autism are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime). As co-editor of the excellent Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, she has helped to equip parents and people with autism with a critical approach to the evaluation of claims made by researchers and therapists alike.”

The Prize 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.”

Commentary on the 2014 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science

Joint winners of Maddox Prize spoke out about science despite abuse and legal threats, The Conversation

It's not just on Ebola that good science must prevail, The Observer

Emily Willingham: winner of the 2014 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science, Left Brain Right Brain

Writers Honored for Defending Science, The Scientist

DCU Graduate Recognised as Science Champion, Dublin City University

Scientists awarded for tackling controversial issues, Vetenskap & Allmanhet

Note on the 2014 Maddox PrizeThree men make a tiger (David Grimes' blog)

       Nature       Kohn Foundation