Awarding Science Defense

A psychiatrist and a science writer win the first John Maddox Prize for promoting science despite opposition.  

Nov 9, 2012
Beth Marie Mole

Flickr, SnapThe truth-seeking Chinese science writer, Shi-min Fang, and British chronic fatigue syndrome researcher Simon Wessely this week (November 6) became the inaugural recipients of the John Maddox Prize, which honors individuals who promote science in the face of adversity, in honor of the former Nature editor who championed robust science.

Fang, a biochemist by training, turned into a scientific watchdog, exposing fraudulent research on his website New Threads. In 2010, he was physically attacked for challenging the efficacy of a urologist’s surgical procedures. In the award announcement, Nature lauded Fang’s work because it “imposes transparency on an opaque system. He has opened a forum for criticism and debate in a community that is otherwise devoid of it.”

Wessely, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry of King’s College London, studies the link between chronic fatigue syndrome and clinical depression, developing successful cognitive-behavioral treatments. But despite his advances, a vocal minority of the chronic fatigue syndrome community was outraged by his emphasis on neurophysiological aspects of the disease, rather than the physical symptoms. “All along the way, Wessely has had to suffer continued abuse and obstruction from a powerful minority of people who, under the guise of self-help organizations, have sought to promote an extreme and narrow version of the disorder,” the anonymous individual who nominated Wessely told Nature. Wessely received hate mail and death threats for more than 2 decades, but continued his research despite the risk.

The prizes, sponsored by Nature and the Kohn Foundation, and are organized by the London-based charity, Sense About Science, award $3,200 to each recipient.