Wednesday, September 22, 2004

A conversation with the editor of Science Magazine

Donald Kennedy discusses creativity of scientists, hot button issues

A conversation with the editor of Science Magazine

Donald Kennedy addresses attendees at the 2004 Sun Valley Writers' Conference. Photo by Barbi Reed, courtesy Sun Valley Writers' Conference.

Donald Kennedy, a recent participant in the Sun Valley Writers? Conference, is a Harvard trained biologist, who since June 1, 2000, has been editor-in-chief of Science, perhaps the most prestigious scientific journal published. He is also a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and was from 1980 to 1991 the president of Stanford University.

During the Writers? Conference in August Kennedy took time out for an interview.

AT: The theme of the Writers? Conference is ?Imagination and Its Limits.? Do you think scientists and those who work in the arts differ in their creative abilities?

DK: There is an awful lot of imagination in scientific work. Scientists imagine how something comes about. They build a story about their system and then build an attack for verifying the story. Scientists have great creative moments when they invent the story and decide how to test it. The process replicates what creative writers do.

AT: Do you see an increasing convergence of politics and science?

DK: There are two significant issues that have become intensely political: stem cell research and climate change.

AT: What aspects of the climate debate are not disputed?

DK: There is widespread consensus that over the last century global temperatures have risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit, primarily due to the buildup of greenhouse gases. And the U.S. adds about one-quarter of that CO2 load. Even if we stopped adding (greenhouse gases) today, we have to consider that the lifetime of these gases in the atmosphere is about a century.

We are not going to have a hydrogen economy anytime soon, and (when we do) it won?t be carbon free.

My view is that the data is so clear with respect to what has happened and what will happen in the next 50 years. As it gets warmer, we are likely to see more extreme weather events.

AT: What is the most important question yet to be answered on the subject?

DK: We need to better understand the dynamics of ocean circulation and ocean transport in heat transfer.

AT: In 2001, President Bush mandated that federal funds could only be used for research on stem cell lines already in existence. Did that have any real impact on the research field?

DK: Many of those lines had mouse feeder cells in them. Biologists generally think that there is a need to develop more lines. I suppose it really becomes a moral question. If something is not okay, it shouldn?t matter where the money comes from.

AT: What criteria do you use in selecting papers for Science?

DK: First, is it right, and is it interesting. Second, does it represent enough of an advance in a given field to be of interest.

We get about 11,000 submissions per year. Our staff of 24 editors, all of whom have done extensive post doctoral work and are active in the field, evaluate those submissions. We also have perhaps 100 outside review editors who can do in-depth peer reviews of the papers.

AT: Does getting published in Science change a scientist?s career?

DK: It is a major event in establishing their professional abilities. And certainly tenure committees take it seriously.

AT: If a very bright 18-year-old came to you and asked you in what field they would have the most impact on the world, what would you tell them?

DK: One would be the human genome ? It may turn out that scientists in the field have given us a parts list, not a blueprint. A very exciting area has to do with the new classes of molecules that can block chemicals ? studying the controls of general transcription is by and far most interesting.

Neurobiology would be another suggestion.

And environmental science: biological diversity and how it affects productivity, how to conserve biodiversity most effectively, sources of climate change. In general, studying large systems and how they work.

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