Nancy Olivieri has been honoured by the American Association for the Advancement of Science with its Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award “for her indefatigable determination that patient safety and research integrity come before institutional and commercial interests.”
Olivieri, a professor of pediatrics, medicine and public health sciences at the University of Toronto, showed “courage in defending these principles in the face of severe consequences,” the award selection committee noted.
In 1996, Olivieri identified an unexpected risk associated with a drug that showed promise for patients with thalassemia — a blood disorder that can be fatal if not treated. When she started informing patients of the risk as was required by medical ethics, the drug’s manufacturer terminated the research trial and threatened to take legal action.
She was then subjected to a series of attacks by senior staff at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, the hospital’s board of trustees, the drug’s manufacturer and others. The University of Toronto provided her with no effective support until more than two and a half years after the legal threats had been issued.
The case grabbed headlines around the world and sparked debate over academic freedom and the ethical dilemmas faced by university researchers conducting clinical trials funded by drug companies.
CAUT set up an independent committee of inquiry in 1999, which exonerated Olivieri and faulted the university and hospital. She was later vindicated by the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Her long struggle has brought world attention to the importance of scientific integrity for public health and safety.
The Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award is presented annually by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to honour individual scientists and engineers or organizations for exemplary actions that help foster scientific freedom and responsibility. The award recognizes outstanding efforts to protect the public’s health, safety or welfare; to focus public attention on potential impacts of science and technology; to establish new precedents in carrying out social responsibilities; or to defend the professional freedom of scientists and engineers. The award was established in 1980 and each year’s winner receives $5,000 and is honoured at the association’s AGM.
Olivieri received the award at a Feb. 20 ceremony in San Diego, California.