John Maddox Prize: celebrating champions of health and science

By October 25, 2023Public

Nancy Olivieri, winner of the 2023 John Maddox Prize

Canadian haematologist Nancy Olivieri has won the 2023 Sense About Science John Maddox Prize for standing up for science — for her work to highlight the importance of being open with patients about medical research and raising concerns about drug trials despite being put under the extreme pressure of lawsuits and losing her job.

This year’s Early Career Award was won by the US epidemiologist Chelsea Polis is awarded the 2023 Early Career Award for her analysis of flawed research and her courage in meticulously challenging the misleading marketing claims of a medical device.

And the UK journalist Helen Joyce was shortlisted for work to highlight the importance of biological sex differences in health and social research and the need for medical interventions to be evidence-based and transparently researched.

All three have championed evidence-based science, often in the face of intimidation and challenges.

Nancy Olivieri Nancy Olivieri, insisted that patients should see clinical trial results that showed potential harm from the drug deferiprone — an iron-chelating medicine used to remove excess iron from the body in patients with thalassaemia major. The judges said she had, “followed her own determination to act with integrity in raising concerns from trials on the drug deferiprone for the blood condition thalassaemia, in the face of extreme pressure from the company producing it, ultimately at great personal cost”.

Chelsea Polis, winner of the 2023 Early Career Award

Chelsea Polis, an epidemiologist at the Population Council’s Center for Biomedical Research NY, USA, was praised by the judges for her “analysis of the flawed research used to market a fertility tracking thermometer, known as Daysy, as a contraceptive, which she communicated effectively in the face of lawsuits and threats.”

The judges said that despite a polarised and at times hostile reaction, Helen Joyce, a co-founder of the human rights organisation Sex Matters, “has advocated for all researchers to be able to share findings openly and safely, whilst raising awareness of the harms resulting from a lack of research and absence of evidence underpinning medical interventions”.

The John Maddox Prize is a joint initiative between Sense About Science, a charity which promotes the public interest in sound science and evidence, and world-renowned scientific journal, Nature. The prize commemorates the tireless defender of science, Sir John Maddox.

Sir John Maddox (1925-2009) was editor of Nature from 1966 to 1973, and from 1980 until 1995, and laid the foundations for Nature as it is today, establishing a system of peer review and instituting a strong tradition of journalism. He was a founding trustee of Sense about Science and inspired much of its work, including the now internationally established Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network.

This prize commemorates Sir John as a passionate and tireless communicator and defender of science. As a writer and editor at Nature for 22 years, he engaged with difficult debates and encouraged others to do the same. Sir John, in the words of his friend and former Nature news editor the late 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.”


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