No one gains if social media storms stunt research in contentious areas

Researchers mustn’t be obliged to second-guess which results might not play out well in public or with powerful interests, worries Tracey Brown

十月 27, 2023
A man in a boat views a storm through binoculars as buildings fall behind him, symbolising social media storms
Source: iStock/CreativaImages

Researchers shouldn’t be threatened or intimidated when speaking out about evidence for the public good. Who would disagree? But what about when that evidence pertains to a highly contested political or social issue? What if the evidence isn’t what we expected or lends support to views we don’t like? How do we feel then?

The John Maddox Prize, awarded this week, recognises the courage of those who continue not only to do their research but also to share their results with the public even when it goes against the grain of received wisdom and provokes intimidation.

This year’s winners are both medical researchers who stood up for science against commercial vested interests. The 2023 prizewinner, Nancy Olivieri, is a Canadian haematologist who was fired from her position at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital in the 1990s and endured strategic lawsuits against public participation (Slapps) filed by the drug company Apotex after publishing findings indicating that a medicine used to remove excess iron in patients with thalassaemia major was toxic. This harassment culminated in Olivieri’s referral to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) by the hospital (which had received a large donation from Apotex) in an attempt to revoke her medical licence. Instead, the CPSO ruled that her advocacy for patients had been “commendable”.

Meanwhile, the early career award is given to Chelsea Polis, a senior scientist of epidemiology at the Population Council's Center for Biomedical Research at Rockefeller University in New York. She was sued in 2021 by the medical device company Valley Electronics for publicly sharing her scientific and regulatory concerns around the marketing of the Daysy fertility device; her research ultimately led to the company’s misleading paper being retracted.

Researchers in middle-income countries have frequently been nominated for standing up to heavy-handed states since the Maddox Prize was founded in 2012, and they still need to do so. But in an era of social media and populism, the politics is getting ever messier.

Nominee Linda Guamán, director of the Biomedical Research Centre at Universidad UTE, Ecuador, is threatened with jail for alleged embezzlement over the efficacy of Covid-19 tests. In a highly politicised case targeting the former mayor of Quito, the prosecution claims that Guamán concealed the fact that 100,000 Covid-19 tests bought by Quito’s authorities were of inferior quality – despite the fact that they had been acquired before she came into office and that she had been the one to order the reviews of their efficacy.

Not all researchers face lawsuits or jail time, but many still face barriers to their work, perhaps even from colleagues or well-meaning interest groups or, more messily, online – from hostile audiences they have no connection to.

A handful of nominations in 2013 described having received nasty comments on social media, but hatchet jobs by the established media were a much greater concern. By contrast, nominations for the 2023 prize describe orchestrated campaigns to get people fired, with journalists sometimes the ones to rescue the research voice from the melee. All this creates a general anxiety in today’s research community: the fear of controversy.

Some of this year’s nominees conspicuously overcame that anxiety. Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, is a case in point. He was shortlisted for challenging the suitability of lockdowns for South Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic and insisting that policies be based on regional dynamics – in spite of international pressure, much of it online, to adopt standard global lockdown protocols.

In the US, Peter Hotez, professor of paediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, was shortlisted for far-reaching efforts to explain the science behind vaccination and for explaining why this can’t be decided in a personality contest with vaccine sceptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

And working in perhaps today’s most emotionally charged research field, Helen Joyce was shortlisted for her courage in raising the importance of biological sex differences in health and social research, advocating for researchers to be able to share findings openly and safely.

Notwithstanding these admirable examples, my fear, shared by colleagues and my fellow Maddox Prize judges, is that researchers may begin their work by trying to second-guess which questions might cause a negative reaction or which results might not play out well in public or with powerful interests. They may go so far as to explore research questions in a coded way to avoid triggering early interventions or debate, or to decline from widely communicating their findings.

When she received her award, Oliveri said, “We should create a situation in science where whistleblowers are not necessary.” It’s heartening that some universities, publishers and funders are now asking what more they should do to protect the space to talk openly about research. But we all need to recognise that if we want research that we can rely on – if we want to hear about risks and opportunities, new insights and things that aren’t working as expected – then we must do what we can to shape a society that permits it.

We must create and nurture the space for that research to be done – and that includes acknowledging that science will always throw up findings we don’t like.

Tracey Brown is director of Sense about Science, an independent charity that promotes the public interest in evidence. The John Maddox Prize for courageously advancing public discourse with sound science is awarded jointly by the journal Nature and Sense about Science.



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