The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has presented an award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility annually since 1980. “It honors scientists, engineers or organizations whose exemplary actions have demonstrated scientific freedom and responsibility in challenging circumstances. “
These awards have gone on these past 38 years without much notice, recognizing worthy scientists and organizations for their service. For example, the 2018 award went to Marc Edwards, “a civil and environmental engineer whose team documented lead contamination in the water supply of Flint,” Michigan. This year is a little different…
The 2019 AAAS award winners are…
Global Fight Against Lethal Herbicides Earns 2019 AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award was the title of this year’s award announcement. Lethal herbicide – that must be something really bad, right? What could it be? AAAS is referring to glyphosate, apparently.
This year’s award was so controversial that many scientists took to Twitter to express their displeasure. AAAS has revoked public view from the announcement page (though Biofortified saved a PDF) and AAAS announced on Twitter that they will not give the award as planned.
We are taking steps to reassess the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, after concerns were voiced by scientists and members. This award will not be presented next week as originally planned while we further evaluate the award selection.— AAAS (@aaas) February 6, 2019
Like many others, I am curious about the circumstances of the nomination and award process, and what happened behind closed doors that resulted in this surprising retraction. In this post, I humbly suggest that AAAS has an opportunity here to improve not just one award or one committee but to reconsider how the organization can encourage different types of scientists to work together.
Who are the awardees?
The awardees, Sarath Gunatilake
- Sarath Gunatilake, University of California, Long Beach – Mental health, international health, hospital management and quality assurance, training health care workers, disaster management, and occupational and environmental health research in international settings.
- Channa Jayasumana, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka – Causes and treatments for chronic kidney disease, nephrotoxins, epistemology, and traditional medicine systems.
- Priyantha Senanayake, Hela Suwaya Organization (lead researcher on the 2014 paper) – Additional research unknown, a full bio for this author was not found.
- Sisira Siribaddana, Rajarata University of Sri Lanka (lead researcher on the 2015 paper) – Tropical medicine, chronic kidney disease, snake bites, diabetes, complementary and alternative medicine, and bioethics.
Dr. Gunatilake has strong opinions about glyphosate. He “describes the deadly chemical as an octopus with poisonous tentacles reaching far and wide” as breathily reported in a Daily Mirror article, Glyphosate without adjuvants not very useful. Dr. Jayasumana also has some strong opinions, even testifying at the so-called “Monsanto Tribunal” that use of glyphosate has caused “ecocide”.
Dr. Senanayake is the founder of “Hela Healing“, which sells purportedly medicinal rice at many pharmacies and stores in Sri Lanka. In 2014, Dr. Senanayake was recognized by the first lady of Sri Lanka for her work on chronic kidney disease, as reported in Priyantha Senanayake awarded as a [
According to the AAAS press release about the award, the two researchers “faced death threats and claims of research misconduct while working to determine the cause of a kidney disease epidemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in their home country of Sri Lanka and around the world.” I was not able to find independent verification of such death threats, though I am searching only in English.
Clearly, these two public health researchers want to protect public health and according to the announcement they did face “challenging circumstances”. So in that sense, they are deserving of this award. Unfortunately, they did not exemplify scientific responsibility in the conclusions that they drew.
Before continuing, I want to be clear – I’m not necessarily saying that researchers with unusual results should not be honored for perseverance in the face of adversity. No one should face death threats, no matter their research claims. Researchers should be free to seek funding and to attempt to publish results, even when they go against the overall consensus on a subject.
Glyphosate is an easy target
Glyphosate is a surprisingly controversial herbicide. The controversy is surprising because of how benign it is. As the SciMoms explain, like GMOs, glyphosate has become a scapegoat or proxy for many socio-economic issues in food, agriculture, and beyond.
Iida Ruishalme has published an extensive series about glyphosate if you would like to get into specifics. Briefly, animals, including humans, do not have the metabolic pathway affected by glyphosate. Dietary exposure
Use of glyphosate has increased over time. In Long-term trends in the intensity and relative toxicity of herbicide use, Andrew Kniss showed that in the United States, “glyphosate accounted for 26% of maize, 43% of soybean and 45% of cotton herbicide applications” in 2014/2015. But, because of glyphosate’s low toxicity relative to other herbicides, it only contributed a small percentage of the chronic toxicity hazard in these crops.
Because of its prevalent use globally, glyphosate is an easy target. But in some ways, further replacement of other herbicides with glyphosate would further reduce
Chronic kidney disease and the glyphosate ban
In Glyphosate, Hard Water and Nephrotoxic Metals: Are They the Culprits Behind the Epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology in Sri Lanka? the awardees reported that the disease had plagued rice paddy farming areas in Sri Lanka since the mid-1990s. The researchers hypothesized that glyphosate was the “Compound X” that binds to metals and carries them to kidneys to cause damage.
If only chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology (CKDu) could be stopped by just removing glyphosate. But this hypothesis didn’t pan out in 2014, or today. Three recent reviews and meta-analyses tell us the full story.
CKDu currently occurs among agricultural workers in 5 areas of the world: North Central Province in Sri Lanka, Andhra Pradesh in India, Tunisia, El Minya in Egypt, and parts of El Salvador and Nicaragua. CKDu presents differently in each area and seems to be associated with different factors in each area as well, according to a 2017 review Endemic Nephropathy Around the World.
The reviewers also describe 2 previous unexplained chronic kidney disease epidemics with similar symptoms but that pre-date glyphosate. Itai-Itai disease in Japan, first identified in the 1910s, was found to be due to cadmium-contaminated crops. Balkan endemic nephropathy, first identified in the 1950s, was found to be due to accidentally consuming seeds from a toxic herb. Subsequent cases have been identified when people intentionally take certain toxic herbs as herbal remedies.
What do epidemiological studies tell us about chronic kidney disease of undetermined cause in Meso-America? A systematic review and meta-analysis, from 2017, concludes: “Our meta-analysis showed positive associations for males (versus females) and family history of CKD, water intake, lowland altitude
Pesticide exposures and chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology: an epidemiologic review, also from 2017, “performed a systematic review of epidemiologic studies that addressed associations between any indicator of pesticide exposure and any outcome measure of CKD.” They confirm that “existing studies provide scarce evidence for an association between pesticides and regional CKDu epidemics.” They suggest that more studies should be done.
Despite the lack of evidence for the hypothesis that glyphosate causes CKDu, Sri Lanka banned glyphosate in 2014, apparently in large part due to the work of the awardees. In 2015, the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka issued a Statement on the Banning of Glyphosate, suggesting that the evidence points to the need for clean water and medical care for people in the affected area, education about safe use of pesticides, and controls on the importation of sub-standard pesticides – all evidence-based measures. When we blame the wrong things for public health problems, people continue to get hurt.
This is where the @AAAS award has potential to do real damage to public health. This award gives support to the idea that if glyphosate is banned, the CKDu problem will go away. It legitimizes a simple 'solution' that simply won't work to solve a complex problem.— Andrew Kniss 🌱 (@WyoWeeds) February 5, 2019
The glyphosate ban decreased yields, increased erosion, and may have increased illegal use of pesticides, according to Ban on Glyphosate: Planters’ plea for an alternative. These problems are described again in Glyphosate ban must be lifted and many other articles. The ban was finally lifted in 2018. With this award emboldening anti-glyphosate activists, are we more or less likely to see evidence-based solutions now?
AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility
At this time, we have little information about exactly what happened with this award. But we do know how the selection process works, according to AAAS:
Nominations should be sent via postal mail or email… All nominations are reviewed by a selection committee, which consists of five members chosen for diversity of background and sensitivity to the activities honored by this award. The committee’s selection must be endorsed by the AAAS Board of Directors at their fall meeting.AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility
The first step is
Given that this is the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, you’d think the awardees are likely chosen by members of the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (CSFR) or a committee they selected. This 15-person committee currently has 2 members with expertise in the biological sciences; they are both medical doctors. None have a background related to agriculture or pesticides. That said, they have an incredible diversity of research and expertise.
However, as CSFR member Matthew Brown describes, the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility does not have this task. Instead, the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights & Law Program (SRHRL) convenes the selection committee. SRHRL is run by a program staff of 5, including an assistant. None have a background related to agriculture or pesticides, or even biology or chemistry. Would they have chosen anyone with a background in these for the selection committee?
Due to their backgrounds, the program staff may have been unaware of or unable to see the controversy around glyphosate as it might have been presented in a nomination letter. But at least some of them should have been able to do a quick literature search for causes of CKDu (as I did for this post) and find that the researchers’ hypothesis was weak at best. If not able to do this themselves, they could have found some scientists who could evaluate the claims and research the background a bit before deciding upon an awardee.
Per the terms of the award, the AAAS Board of Directors endorsed the selection. The Board of 5 includes 2 biological scientists, both in medicine. These eminent leaders of science presumably reviewed the selection and decided it was an appropriate award.
As weed scientist Andrew Kniss pointed out on Twitter, there were many concerning phrases in AAAS’s announcement.
The most concerning part for me is the announcement.— Andrew Kniss 🌱 (@WyoWeeds) February 5, 2019
"deadly herbicide called glyphosate"
"uncovered the deadly effects"
"solving a medical mystery"
"their advocacy led to the culprit"
"found that glyphosate was transporting heavy metals to the kidneys"
This wording is much stronger than
The announcement for the award was written by a science writer from the AAAS Newsroom. Like the Committee and the AAAS Board, the writer may have been unaware of the controversy around glyphosate, but he could have searched for more information.
Altogether, this seems to have been a systemic lack of information-seeking and some confirmation bias, combined with as-yet unknown motivated nomination letter writers. While some on Twitter cried foul, I don’t see evidence that this was anything nefarious by AAAS. This award situation is new, but it’s part of an all too familiar narrative.
Writing about the glyphosate ban in Sri Lanka, Buddhi Marambe, weed scientist of the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka summarizes:
We have failed to look at issues taking the totality into consideration. The complex problems in agriculture have no single and simple answers, especially with regard to national level food security. Forces with political and spiritual ideologies have always succeeded in the recent past in over-ruling even the most basic scientific principles. This is a pathetic story.The glyphosate story – CKDu, food security and national economy
I feel his frustration. It often seems that despite all of our hard work, the needle has barely moved. Fear of biotechnology is higher than ever. Vaccination rates are declining. New plant breeding technologies are set to be stringently regulated. Netflix is funding a docuseries to promote discredited cures. It’s
Doing something different
The best way to ensure that everything from small awards to large grants to policy decisions and more
This isn’t just about the 2019 AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award. The award is just another indicator for old, deep problems. The silos of “hard science” and “soft science” hurt all of science and all of society. Those working on technological applications often aren’t considering the societal implications of their work while those who are considering the societal implications might not have enough in-depth experience with the tech itself.
Unfortunately, researchers in the “hard sciences” often don’t volunteer for work in the “soft sciences”. Why would they? While we give
There does seem to be a growing number of cross-trained scientists, which is encouraging – but anecdotally, we’re also finding trouble fitting into traditional careers that don’t reward “extracurricular” activities when we’re in research roles, yet we’re too experienced and too educated for many other roles.
This is where AAAS comes in. Instead of sweeping this award situation under the rug, how amazing would it be if they found ways to encourage silo breaking? If anyone has the power to advocate for new incentives for interdisciplinary work, it’s the world’s largest interdisciplinary scientific society. Ideas have already been developed, such as those presented in the 2018 paper Overcoming early career barriers to interdisciplinary climate change research.
AAAS organizes members into Sections based on
It would be easy enough to determine which Sections are under-represented. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, in 2016 there were 19,900 physicist and astronomer jobs, growing at a rate of 14%, while there were 43,000 agricultural and food scientist jobs, growing at a rate of 7%. AAAS could look at the current membership and provide incentives such as discounted membership and discounted meeting attendance to under-represented fields. Membership of $125 per year might not seem like much but it adds up when you consider various domain-specific societies that we must also belong to. AAAS could also encourage institutions to permit researchers to use grant funds to pay for membership, something that is not universally allowed.
On a related note, science communication is another area where AAAS could demonstrate leadership on the policy side. AAAS provides top-notch science communication training and events, and and they even have a Communication Toolkit on their website. The organization clearly sees value in scientists communicating with the public. But getting scientists excited about outreach doesn’t help much when there’s little to no reward for doing it. Changing performance evaluations to include outreach would show that this activity has value – and AAAS is one organization that could provide leadership and encourage institutional change.
AAAS has shown incredible leadership on many topics over the years, including taking major steps against harassment, advocating for human rights, training scientist diplomats, and much more. In that context, developing and implementing incentives for interdisciplinary involvement both inside and outside AAAS itself and helping those who are cross-trained to find roles that use their skills seems almost easy. Then next time there’s a questionable award nomination, it will be dealt with easily.
Editor’s note: Thanks to our commenters for providing needed information! Updated February 11, 2019 to add information about Priyantha Senanayake, and to elaborate on what AAAS could do differently to reduce such missteps in the future. Updated February, 14 2019 to correct how the selection committee is chosen, and to add a note about what AAAS could do to encourage scientists in science communication.