AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility
2009 Award Recipient
Nancy Olivieri is honored for her indefatigable determination that patient safety and research integrity come before institutional and commercial interests and for her courage in defending these principles in the face of severe consequences.
The AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, established in 1980, honors scientists, engineers, and their organizations whose exemplary actions, sometimes taken at significant personal cost, have served to foster scientific freedom and responsibility. The recipient receives $5,000 and a commemorative plaque.
In 1997, while conducting a clinical trial of a drug that showed promise in improving the lives of patients suffering from thalassemia—a blood disorder that can be fatal if not treated—Dr. Olivieri discovered possibly life-threatening side effects of the medication. She informed the pharmaceutical company of this risk and of her intention to notify the hospital’s Research Ethics Board, her patients, and other clinicians. The company, disagreeing with her findings, informed Dr. Olivieri that such actions would be in violation of a confidentiality agreement she had signed and that they would seek “legal remedies” if she carried out her intentions.
After publishing her findings, she suffered a series of adverse actions from the company and the hospital, including being relieved of one of her positions and referral to a physicians’ disciplinary board. The press received anonymous letters accusing her of misconduct, later traced to a colleague who received money from the company. The university where she had an appointment, which had been promised a large donation by the company, supported her only after an investigation by the Canadian Association of University Teachers completely vindicated her, as did the physicians’ board. Dr. Olivieri continues to fight legal battles brought against her by the drug company.
Her struggle in defending these principles has brought world attention to the importance of scientific integrity for public health and safety. Editors of leading biomedical journals have imposed new publishing standards, the university changed its policies on industry-supported research, and her findings regarding the drug have stood.
Dr. Olivieri currently serves as a Senior Scientist and Director of the Hemoglobinopathy Program at the University Heath Network and a Professor of Pediatrics, Medicine and Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto, Canada.