Science in the Court: forest fires expert ‘criminalised for presenting evidence’ welcomed at guest lecture

Professor Bambang Hero Saharjo, who is Indonesia’s lead expert witness on environmentally catastrophic peatland fires, was awarded the 2019 John Maddox Prize for his courage and integrity in standing up for sound science in the face of harassment, intimidation, and law suits.

Lancaster University will welcome a courageous scientist and recent winner of the 2019 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science this week.

Forest fire expert Bambang Hero Saharjo and pharmacist Olivier Bernard, were both awarded the 2019 John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science this week (November 12th).

On November 14th at 1pm Professor Hero – who was nominated for the prize by Lancaster University’s Dr Jacob Phelps - will give a lecture at the University entitled ‘Science in the Court’.

Professor Hero, who is Indonesia’s lead expert witness on environmentally catastrophic peatland fires, was awarded the 2019 John Maddox Prize for his courage and integrity in standing up for sound science in the face of harassment, intimidation, and law suits. 

Dr Phelps said: “Prof. Hero bucks the trend of what most people tend to expect from scientists. He uses his research to help deliver justice in individual cases, while also demonstrating what is possible—a future in which courts are true centres of evidence-based justice, even in the face of entrenched interests; where academics are genuine public servants, and in which science has a prominent role in the public discourse. He has been an inspiration for my work, challenging us to think about how our science fits with the judicial system. We are now actively designing research to help inform court cases—specifically tackling illegal wildlife trade in both Indonesia and in Nepal.”

Peatland forest fires, which are often started by companies who want to clear land cheaply and quickly, including palm oil companies, cause enormous environmental damage; as of 5 September 2019, global fires this year have released more carbon dioxide than annual emissions from the EU and Japan combined. They are also incredibly dangerous, recent Indonesian fires are said by Unicef to be putting 10 million children at risk.

In 2015 Bambang’s testimony was instrumental in a palm oil company’s guilty verdict; in 2018 the company filed a $33.5 million lawsuit (SLAPP intimidation suit) against him on a technicality. He continues to testify and stand up for the Indonesian people’s constitutional right to a healthy environment, one of the very few scientists in his field who are prepared to do so.

The John Maddox Prize, now in its eighth year, is a joint initiative of the charity Sense about Science, which promotes the public interest in sound science and evidence, and the leading international scientific journal Nature, and is awarded to one or two people a year. This year there were 206 nominations from 38 countries. This year Prof Hero was awarded the prize alongside Olivier Bernard, a pharmacist and early career researcher from Quebec for his work on Vitamin C and cancer.

Bambang Hero Saharjo said: “Only last year I was criminalised for presenting evidence and being forced to pay nearly rp.510 billion by the palm oil companies, who had been found guilty of preparing to plant palms by burning 1000 hectares of peatland. Finally, the lawsuit was rejected and I am free. Using fire for land preparation is so destructive to the environment and it is destroying the health of local people. 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.”

Tracey Brown OBE, director, Sense about Science and judge said: “Our winners exemplify the spirit of the Maddox prize. In Bambang and Olivier we see people standing up for the rights of their fellow citizens and championing the value of scientific reasoning for us all. They saw the easier path of silence or complicity and rejected it to take responsibility for communicating evidence. Our winners are an example of what can be achieved by one person, standing up against misinformation and corruption. We have seen a rapid increase in the global nominations for the Maddox prize. That tells you something about the need to recognize people who take such responsibility.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) and Head of the Government Science and Engineering (GSE) profession: “The two recipients of the Maddox prize have shown incredible bravery by standing up for the science, even in very testing circumstances. We can only have confidence in policy when it is informed by the very best science which it is why it is vital that scientists have the courage to speak out. These two are inspirational.”

Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief, Nature, and judge said: “We received many excellent nominations this year from such an inspiring group of candidates, all of whom are making great strides in their area. This year’s winners were chosen for their exceptional efforts in raising awareness of issues they are passionate about and for which they have faced criticism and adversity in striving for evidence-based policy and practices. The John Maddox Prize recognises and rewards those who stand up for scientific rigour and we are delighted to be awarding it this year to two notable and dedicated campaigners.”

Lord (Martin) Rees of Ludlow OM FRS, University of Cambridge and judge said: “Rain forests are under threat, but their preservation matters to all of us who care about climate and biodiversity. So it's right that we should acclaim a man who seized the chance to really make a difference – by persistent and effective campaigning against powerful interests.”

Natasha Loder, The Economist and judge said: “This year we were particularly impressed with the wide range of nominations we received, which came from 38 countries and an array of disciplines. There are some powerful stories here, our winners show what one individual, armed with a scientific approach, can achieve.” 

A brief summary of the seminar is now available here.

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