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Dr. Nancy Olivieri, a Champion of Patient Safety, Wins AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award

The 2009 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award will honor Dr. Nancy Olivieri of the University of Toronto “for her indefatigable determination that patient safety and research integrity come before institutional and commercial interests.”

Dr. 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 1997, while conducting a clinical trial of a drug that showed promise for improving the lives of patients with thalassemia—a blood disorder that can be fatal if not treated—Dr. Olivieri reported that she discovered what she considered to be possibly life-threatening side effects of the medication. She said that 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. According to Dr. Olivieri, the company disagreed with her findings, informed her that such actions would be in violation of a confidentiality agreement she had signed, and warned of “legal remedies” if she carried out her intentions.

After publishing her findings, Dr. Olivieri suffered a series of adverse actions, including being relieved of one of her positions and referral to a physicians’ disciplinary board.

A report on the case—completed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT)—states that anonymous letters to journalists and several colleagues, accusing Dr. Olivieri of professional and sexual misconduct, were later traced to a colleague who had received money from the company. The CAUT reported further that 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 Association and the physicians’ board had vindicated her. Dr. Olivieri continues to fight legal battles brought against her by the drug company. (Reference: http://www.caut.ca/pages.asp?page=199.)

Her long struggle in defending these principles 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 honor 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 is approved by the AAAS Board of Directors. The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award will be presented at the 176th AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego, California, which will take place 18-22 February 2010.