David Nutt was awarded the John Maddox prize in 2013 in recognition of his influence on evidence-based classification of drugs, and his continued courage and commitment to rational debate despite opposition and public criticism. Here, he talks about the significance of the award and what it means to stand up for science.
The John Maddox prize has a special place in my heart as it was the first – and likely last – prize I have been awarded in relation to my science. It certainly helped make up for the stress and challenges I had experienced when being sacked as the UK government chief advisor on illegal drugs in 2009. At the time of the sacking a petition from over 3000 scientists called on the PM Gordon Brown to reinstate me, which despite support from several Labour and most LibDem MPs, didn’t happen. So, the Maddox prize to some extent validated their efforts and I was delighted to meet some of those supporters at the reception.
The prize was also personally relevant as I had met and had through correspondence discussed with John Maddox the importance of the novel bidirectional pharmacology of the GABA-benzodiazepine receptor system that I helped discover when I was a research fellow in the MRC clinical pharmacology unit in Oxford. He was a warm and thoughtful person who was prepared to embrace the concept of bidirectional receptor activity, when at the time it was seen as a controversial. He was indeed a protagonist for standing up of science.
By the time I got the award I was already well known for having developed the methodology to assess in a systematic and transparent way the harms of different psychoactive drugs. The scale of harms graph in the 2010 Lancet paper had become widely disseminated and cited (it is now my most cited paper). But the prize gave new impetus to the discussion on drugs and drug harms, and the media outputs from Nature promoted international dissemination and helped establish its scientific credibility. That graph is now almost a scientific meme.
Having never received a prize before I wasn’t sure whether to keep it for myself or put the money into the charity Drug Science that I had set up to provide independent objective assessments of drug harms and policy following my sacking from the ACMD. The Drug Science team were insistent that I took some of it to reward myself for all the unpaid work I had done for the charity. So, what to spend it on? After some reflection I decided to put it towards a hot tub. I have suffered from auto-immune arthritis for many years and found hot baths a great relief. I try to use the tub most days when at home, and as I float in its bubbly warmth, watching the sky and occasionally glimpsing our local falcon, I often reflect on its funding! Thanks again for the prize!
The John Maddox prize is a joint initiative of the charity Sense about Science and the leading international scientific journal Nature. The prize has been awarded annually since 2012 to individuals who have shown courage and integrity in standing up for sound science and evidence. In addition to the main award, there is an additional prize for an individual considered to be at an early career stage.
The prize brings into the spotlight the underappreciated efforts of people the world over who try to bring research and evidence to public debate even when it is challenging, and inspires and encourages others to do the same. The prize has a global focus and the 2021 John Maddox Prize received 136 nominations from 33 countries.
The John Maddox Prize brings attention to the courage and effort shown by individuals who take responsibility for helping society understand research evidence. It advocates for positive change towards an environment in which researchers can engage society in difficult conversations about scientific evidence without fear of professional or personal consequences.
Professor David Nutt is currently the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology and director of the Neuropsychopharmacology Unit in the Division of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London. He is the founder of Drug Science where he is currently the Chair of the scientific committee. He has been an Editor of the Journal of Psychopharmacology for over two decades. He was awarded the John Maddox prize in 2013 in recognition of his influence on evidence-based classification of drugs, and his continued courage and commitment to rational debate despite opposition and public criticism. In 2009 Professor Nutt was dismissed from his role at the ACMD by Home Secretary Alan Johnson after speaking out about the Government’s policies on drugs being at odds with scientific evidence. Concerns among the scientific community following Professor Nutt’s dismissal led to the creation of the Principles for the Treatment of Independent Scientific Advice, which are now part of the Ministerial Code.