Widespread efforts to suppress evidence-based discussion demand stronger protection for scientists, says Eucharia Nwaichi
I know first-hand how powerful interests seek to stifle debate and suppress research evidence. In an attempt to undermine my work on soil remediation in contaminated land in and around the Niger Delta oil fields, vested interests misrepresented the effectiveness of new remediation methods, making it difficult for me to persuade communities that they worked.
This was exacerbated by the spread of misinformation and pseudoscience in local communities and online platforms, making local people reluctant to take part in the research. Meanwhile, representatives of different oil companies confiscated my recordings and data and objected to my work and findings due to my gender and close engagements with affected communities.
I am far from alone in facing such challenges. Scientists working in similar situations are exposed to toxic materials and pollutants without appropriate protection. Some find that industry or government seek to block access to polluted sites, and many face limited funding, inadequate laboratory facilities and insufficient access to sophisticated equipment.
Political and economic interests have hindered open and honest discussions around environmental pollution, undermining policy reforms informed by the best available evidence. It’s a global problem, and anyone who thinks it isn’t happening in their country or discipline is probably not seeing the full picture.
Winning the John Maddox prize emboldened me to discuss my work on the impact of pollution more openly with local communities and corporations. Most importantly, it empowered me to continue standing up for science. Since the award, my institution has provided more support and recognition, including an award from the vice-chancellor and a promotion to full professor.
The prize strengthened my credibility and reputation among communities, researchers and policymakers. More officials became aware of my research and started conversations around pollution. I was also able to expand my connections with scientists and experts in the field, creating collaborative opportunities for more extensive and impactful research.
But only one person wins the Maddox Prize each year. Many researchers work to help society understand research findings, going above and beyond to ensure that public discussion of contentious issues is informed with evidence. At present, they cannot do so without fearing the professional or personal consequences.
Freedom to speak
To help researchers openly discuss evidence around difficult issues, there needs to be more robust protection for whistleblowers, including from so-called Slapps—strategic lawsuits against public participation—to safeguard those who expose unethical or fraudulent practices. Research institutions should defend academic freedom and enforce strong ethical frameworks that help researchers discuss evidence more openly, even when their findings challenge prevailing narratives.
Society loses out if researchers cannot engage with difficult public conversations, from addressing climate change to the implementation of artificial intelligence. Open discussion allows researchers to verify and reproduce findings, making evidence reliable and credible. It also promotes ethical research practices, discouraging fraud and plagiarism, while holding researchers accountable.
There needs to be a concerted effort from researchers, institutions, policymakers and broader society to create an environment in which researchers can engage society in challenging conversations with confidence. The John Maddox Prize is one step forward in achieving this, but there is still a long way to go.
Eucharia Nwaichi is professor of soil remediation at the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and the 2022 winner of the international John Maddox Prize for courageously advancing public discourse with sound science. The winner of the 2023 prize will be announced at 7.30PM on the of 24 October