Stanford Report, October 11, 2000
|From national security to the human genome: Kennedy's
full agenda for Science
BY MARK SHWARTZ
Deciphering the human genome has been hailed as one of the greatest scientific achievements in history.
And if Donald Kennedy has his way, Science magazine will be the first publication in the world to print the so-called "genetic book of life" -- a foldout map pinpointing thousands of newly discovered genes that make up human DNA.
"We are hoping to publish it before the end of the year," says Kennedy, former president of Stanford, who last June was named editor-in-chief of Science.
Publishing one genome map would be a major coup for most editors, but Kennedy wants to go further by printing two DNA sequences -- one compiled by the publicly funded Human Genome Project, the other by its former rival, Celera Genomics Corp.
"We believe that the two primary sequence papers can be published together, back-to-back, so they can be compared in the same journal," he notes.
"We don't know when they're going to finish exactly, so there are potential timing issues," he adds, "but I'm halfway between hopeful and confident that we'll succeed."
Closing the deal on the genome maps is just one of many items on Kennedy's hectic agenda. In addition to his editorial duties at what is arguably America's most influential scientific journal, he also is in the process of winding down a remarkable 40-year career at Stanford.
"I'm teaching an undergraduate course this fall," says Kennedy, who joined the Department of Biological Sciences faculty in 1960. "That will be my last teaching job."
At age 69, Kennedy has become a full-fledged bi-coastal commuter, flying back and forth between Science magazine's headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Stanford.
"I spend about a week a month in Washington, and then the rest of the time in California," he notes. "I have a wonderful daughter and her family in Washington, and I get to see two grandchildren every trip. And my stepdaughter and her family will be moving back there."
To ease the burden of his commute, Kennedy recently purchased a small condo in downtown Washington, and hopes that his wife, California attorney Robin Hamill, will be able to travel with him on a regular basis.
"She's still discovering whether she can practice virtual law from a West Coast firm, while on the East Coast," he points out.
"She has an office in our condo there, but we're still experimenting with this new life," he adds. "It's funny. It has all of the advantages and some of the challenges of re-potting yourself."
Kennedy's colleagues are pleased that he took the new position at Science.
Long-time friend Paul Ehrlich wrote an essay for Science last May introducing the magazine's new editor-in-chief.
Ehrlich, who joined Stanford's biological sciences faculty a year before Kennedy, called him "one of the broadest, warmest, most talented and most literate scientists ever to grace our business."
Ehrlich highlighted Kennedy's distinguished career, which includes a two-year stint as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Washington in the 1970s, followed by his tenure as Stanford's eighth president from 1980 to 1992.
"We're lucky indeed to have persuaded him to do one more service to the scientific community," wrote Ehrlich.
One of Kennedy's principal duties as editor-in-chief is to write weekly editorials on a wide range of science policy matters -- from national security to the human genome project.
"I would like Science to play an increasing role in shaping science policy," he says emphatically.
"Part of my hope is that we will use the pages of Science to develop a serious dialogue about important matters -- not just say what we think and leave it out there, but say what we think in an inviting or a provocative way, so that it brings in other views and gets a serious discussion started," he adds.
Science versus Nature
One of Kennedy's foremost challenges is to keep his magazine fresh against the onslaught of competition from that other prestigious weekly science journal, Nature, published in London.
Ask any researcher to name the world's two most influential scientific periodicals, and the answer is likely to be Science and Nature.
"We compete with Nature, which is stylistically quite similar to Science," comments Kennedy. "We compete with those guys the way Time competes with Newsweek."
Every week, newspapers and broadcasters across the globe clamor to report the latest discoveries published in these two journals -- everything from new evidence of life on Mars to the strange ability of geckos to hang on ceilings.
"I'm sure that Nature would like to get the primary genome sequence papers," notes Kennedy, "but I want desperately for us to do it."
After more than a century of publishing cutting-edge research, both weeklies have earned strong reputations for integrity and accuracy.
Science was founded in 1880 with a $10,000 investment from American inventor Thomas Edison. For the last 100 years, the magazine has been the voice of the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the largest scientific organizations in the United States.
Nature debuted in 1869, publishing articles by such luminaries of British science as Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. Today Nature is published by Macmillan, which was recently purchased by a large German company -- a development that Kennedy finds a source of worry.
"Nature tries to do what we try to do," he says, "but there is a significant difference. They're a for-profit concern with access to large amounts of working capital. They've spun off a series of niche journals in specialties that are new competitors with us, both for papers and for editorial stand."
Indeed, Nature has launched more than a half-dozen spinoff journals with titles like Nature Immunology, Nature Cell Biology and Nature Medicine.
"Baby Natures," Kennedy calls them, and he is concerned that their visibility will further enhance Nature's "brand" and make competition even stiffer.
"We really do exercise great care, as I'm sure Nature does, in accepting good papers and not accepting not-so-good ones," Kennedy points out.
He estimates that Science turns down nine out of 10 papers submitted to it, often because of length. But occasionally Kennedy and his editorial team let a good one slip through their fingers.
"Every once in a while, a paper that we've rejected shows up someplace else and does very well, and we brush a tear away," he says. "But you cannot engage in a selection process that's that stringent without missing some really good stuff, because certainly the top 10 percent of the papers we reject -- like the top 10 percent of the people Stanford doesn't accept as freshmen -- would be good."
How does a scientist with potentially groundbreaking research choose between Science and Nature?
"Nature might be a little more attractive to a European researcher, because it has a larger circulation in Europe and the U.K.," speculates Kennedy, "whereas Science might be a little more attractive to an American researcher, because we are much larger in the U.S. -- and about equal in Asia."
Both magazines are chock-full of advertisements -- especially from pharmaceutical, biotech and high-tech companies hoping to target the world's leading researchers. And both journals charge a hefty rate for an annual subscription -- more than $100 per individual and potentially thousands of dollars for an institution wanting online access.
With a circulation of 150,000, it's easy to see that Science has become a cash cow for its parent organization, AAAS.
"Science magazine is a net-revenue generator, so it supports a lot of other activities at AAAS," says Kennedy. "Sometimes AAAS wants us to do more for them, and we want to maintain a certain level of independence, so there are occasional differences."
He points out that Richard Nicholson, publisher of Science and executive director of AAAS, has a difficult task.
"He needs to feed other enterprises at AAAS and keep them supported," says Kennedy, "and here's Science saying, 'How much of our excess-of-revenue-over-expenses do you feel entitled to take from us? Come on, we need a larger slice of the revenue that we're producing.' That can sound pretty self-righteous on our part, so we have to get that worked out."
Kennedy ultimately hopes to convince AAAS to increase his staff at Science in order to keep the magazine competitive.
"I'm so impressed with the staff that I work with at Science, but the competition with Nature is really quite intense now," he maintains. "We're going to be pressing for more resources to make sure that we can keep pace, get our editors out there to the important meetings, make sure we're getting the best papers, make sure we're moving them through fast enough to satisfy our community and dealing fairly with those whom we have to reject."
One of Kennedy's main goals during his 5-year tenure at Science will be to reach out to the movers and shakers in federal government.
"I plan to work a little bit more in Washington with people who are in policy circles," he says, "to get them to understand what we're trying to do, because I think the scientific community really needs a voice in helping to develop science policy.
"It shouldn't be merely the voice that one hears in testimony from scientists at appropriations time. There should be a voice representing that community that considers a broader set of issues in how the federal government should approach science," he adds.
On the editorial side, Kennedy wants his magazine to tackle truly controversial issues involving science: climate change, stem cell research, bioengineering and government secrecy, to name a few.
Take the recent case of Wen Ho Lee, the scientist charged with spying at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory.
"I think the Justice Department's management of that case was abysmal," says Kennedy. "It's raised a specter of reluctance, not only on the part of Asian American scientists, but on the part of other scientists who say, in effect, 'Well, if that's what it's like to come under the shadow of government suspicion, I don't want that.'"
Kennedy also is pondering the issue of the extent to which the government should be involved in developing new technologies.
"Should the government have a technology policy as well as a basic science policy?" he asks. "Should it play some role in encouraging the development of particular lines of innovation?
"In general, there's been a political reluctance to have a federal technology policy, because that has been something that traditionally we've left to the market. 'Get government out of there.'
"But for better or for worse, the government can make a big difference," he argues.
And what about the increasingly cozy relationship between universities and private industry? On that subject, Kennedy turns to Stanford and its legendary role in creating Silicon Valley.
"One reaction I get in Washington occasionally is, 'What's it like out there? You must be one of those guys who thinks that we're moving to an era in which universities and industry will be much more deeply connected with one another.'
"I happen to think that Stanford has done it about right, and it has done it with some caution," he concludes.
Kennedy applauds the latest trend of wealthy high-tech donors giving huge sums of money to universities to encourage innovative research projects, such as Stanford' s interdisciplinary Bio-X program created last year with a $150 million donation from Jim Clark -- a former engineering professor who founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape.
"I think we're on the verge of the largest tidal wave of non-federal investment in big-scale basic research in this country -- the biggest we've ever seen," predicts Kennedy.
"It's a real change," he says, "but in fact the federal government ought to be thrilled out of its mind, because 30 years ago, it was the only source for developing the very complex and increasingly expensive infrastructure for American research. And now rich guys are doing it!"
It may be fitting that Kennedy's last teaching assignment at Stanford is an undergraduate humanities course titled "The History of Nature/The Nature of History," which is designed to "explore social solutions to crises in the relations between humans and nature."
"I'm sharing teaching duties with Richard White, the Byrne Professor of History," notes Kennedy. "I normally taught in the Human Biology program, and I taught a freshman seminar and so forth, but [Stanford President] John Hennessy and I reached an agreement that I would go light teaching this year because I was taking on the Science thing.
"I'm going to retire at the end of this session from the faculty, because I hit 70 next summer, and when I was president, I argued so strongly for a university exemption to the uncapping of mandatory retirement that I'm hoist on my own petard. If I held a faculty slot past 70, people would be jumping up and down screaming, so I'm not going to do it."
When his retirement becomes official, Kennedy will receive the honorary titles of President Emeritus and Bing Professor for Environmental Science, Emeritus.
Meanwhile, his workload in Washington is expected to increase as he settles into his leadership role at Science magazine.
"It's more rewarding, more exciting and more challenging than I expected," says Kennedy. "I just love it!"
Photo: L.A. Cicero