In today’s society, scientists don’t just need to tell the public about their research. They must also be able to defend it, particularly if the research has social implications and is of high public interest. This is what a recently launched UK prize acknowledges.
The John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science is an annual prize that was established in 2012. It is awarded by the UK organisation Sense about Science, to recognise scientists who have shown courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest and in the face of adversity.
The classification of drugs is a particular controversial policy issue that causes much social and political debate. The recipient of the 2013 Prize is David Nutt, Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, for his work championing evidence-based discussions of drug-related policy issues.
In 2008, Professor Nutt was appointed chairman of the UK Government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, a role that involved making scientific recommendations to government ministers on the classification of illegal drugs based on the harm they can cause. After speaking out about the Government’s policies on drugs being at odds with the scientific evidence, Professor Nutt was dismissed from his role. Despite ongoing opposition and public criticism, he continues to defend scientific evidence related to this controversial policy area.
Professor Nutt acknowledges that his dismissal actually gave the issues the media debate they needed at the time and it subsequently led to the creation of the Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice that are now part of the UK Government’s Ministerial Code.
Sir Mark Walport, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser commented “A key part of the process of science is communication. For too long there has been a focus solely on effective communication amongst scientists and not enough attention paid to excellent communication by scientists with broader public audiences. The John Maddox prize is important and should serve as an encouragement to scientists to engage in public communication, especially on those difficult issues that are in danger of being hijacked by single issue lobbyists with little respect for scientific evidence or the rigour of science.”
The Prize is named after John Maddox, editor of the science journal Nature for 22 years, who strove for better public understanding and appreciation of science. The Prize is a joint initiative of Nature, the Kohn Foundation and the charity Sense about Science and is open to nominations from outside the UK.