Scientist harassed for calling out vitamin C cancer treatment wins major award

13 Nov 2019

Image: © makistock/

Two scientists who were put under immense personal pressure for speaking out against injustices have won the 2019 Maddox Prize.

At a time when there is so much misinformation in science, whether it be related to healthcare or the climate crisis, scientists are increasingly putting themselves in harm’s way in the name of the truth.

Now, two such scientists have been awarded the 2019 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science, presented by the UK organisation Sense about Science and the scientific journal Nature. Out of a total of 206 nominations across 38 countries, the winners were revealed as Canadian pharmacist Olivier Bernard and Bambang Hero Saharjo of Indonesia.

Bernard is an early career researcher who stood up to those trying to convince governments to “approve and reimburse” high-dose vitamin C injections for cancer patients, which have no basis in evidence.

Bernard frequently laid out scientific evidence dismissing this form of treatment and spoke directly to politicians and affected groups. Over the course of this outreach, he endured a campaign of harassment, including death threats to him and his family as well as complaints to his employer and professional body.

Despite these challenges, his efforts resulted in the creation of a government taskforce to protect scientists who speak on sensitive topics.

“I have learned that scientific decisions made by political entities can be easily swayed by interest groups,” Bernard said following his award. “I’ve also learned that fighting for science can be stressful and scary, and may even come at a personal price. But defenders of science cannot afford to stay in the background.”

Saving Indonesia’s peatlands

Meanwhile, Saharjo in Indonesia also won the award for being the country’s lead witness on the illegal, catastrophic peatland fires often started by companies who want to clear land cheaply and quickly.

Such Indonesian fires are estimated by UNICEF to be putting 10m children at risk from smoke inhalation. Saharjo’s work allowed him to trace the source of these fires and he has testified in 500 court cases putting this evidence forward.

In 2015, his testimony was instrumental in a palm oil company’s guilty verdict for environmental damage. This company, JJP, filed a $33.5m lawsuit against him on a technicality in 2018, which was eventually rejected.

To this day, he remains one of the few Indonesian scientists prepared to testify and stand up for the his people’s constitutional right to a healthy environment.

“Using fire for land preparation is so destructive to the environment and it is destroying the health of local people,” he said. “This is what the evidence shows. The prize will give me more power to say it and to fight the misrepresentation by companies who continue use of fire.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic