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‘Science prevails’ as suspension of award for herbicide research is reversed

  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has formally named Sri Lankan scientists Channa Jayasumana and Sarath Gunatilake the recipients of its 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.
  • The pair had been named the recipients in February for their work linking glyphosate, the main chemical in the weed killer Roundup, to chronic kidney disease, but the decision was suspended before the award ceremony over concerns raised by other scientists.
  • Jayasumana said at the time he suspected there had been pressure from the agrochemical lobby to undermine their research.
  • He told Mongabay that the lengthy peer review ordered by the AAAS following the suspension had vindicated his and Gunatilake’s work and showed that “science has prevailed.”

COLOMBO — Science prevailing over politics: That’s how a researcher who was snubbed for a high-profile award earlier this year has characterized the decision to finally recognize his achievements in highlighting a deadly public health problem in rural Sri Lanka.

Channa Jayasumana and Sarath Gunatilake were to have been conferred the 2019 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in February. But two days after it announced them as the award recipients, the AAAS suspended its decision, citing concerns raised by other scientists about the pair’s work linking the use of a popular weed killer to chronic kidney disease.

At the time, the AAAS said it would address those concerns through a peer review and subsequently evaluate the award status.

That lengthy process has now concluded, Jayasumana told Mongabay on Nov. 15, and has vindicated him and Gunatilake, who are now formally listed on the AAAS website as the recipients of the 2019 award.

Jayasumana said the AAAS had written to him informing him of the review committee’s findings and “considered us suitable to be justly recognized.” He and Gunatilake have long made the case that the chemical glyphosate, best known as the main ingredient in the widely used herbicide Roundup, plays a key role in transporting heavy metals to the kidneys of those drinking contaminated water, leading to high rates of chronic kidney disease (CKD) in farming communities.

At the time of the snub, Jayasumana told Mongabay he suspected that the agrochemical lobby had “negatively influence[d] the emerging scientific evidence linking one of Sri Lanka’s worst public health problems to the agrochemical industry.”

This latest reversal, he said, showed that the research was sound.

“Science has prevailed,” Jayasumana said. “That’s why, after certain groups opposed our selection and undermined our professional work, the research work has been upheld as credible.”

He added the pair might only be presented with the award next year, but that what mattered was the vote of confidence from their fellow scientists.

“It’s important to us because we highlighted a public health issue of immense importance to Sri Lanka, and that has been recognized by AAAS as deserving the scientific freedom and responsibility award,” Jayasumana said.

On its website, the AAAS said, “The 2019 award was given to Sarath Gunatilake and Channa Jayasumana who investigated a possible connection between glyphosate and chronic kidney disease under challenging circumstances.”

The language is more cautious that in its initial announcement on Feb. 4 (now inaccessible but archived elsewhere), where the AAAS referred to the Sri Lankan scientists as “public health researchers who battled powerful corporate interests to uncover the deadly effects of industrial herbicides.”

The award is handed out annually to individuals and organizations “whose exemplary actions have demonstrated scientific freedom and/or responsibility in challenging circumstances,” and comes with a $5,000 prize.


Banner image of a rice field in Sri Lanka by Upali Kohomban via Wikipedia

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