Donald Kennedy would probably be amused by an old friend’s tribute to him as “very close to being a Renaissance man.”
It’s hard to argue with the facts. The 8 years he served as editor-in-chief of Science was only the final chapter in a long and very distinguished career. He spent most of it at Stanford University, including 12 years as its president, interrupted by a 2-year stint as head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under former President Jimmy Carter. But the Harvard University–trained neurobiologist wore those and other honors lightly, driven by an insatiable curiosity about the world and a wish to help make it a better place.
Kennedy, who died on 21 April of COVID-19 at age 88, relished his role as a scientist, educator, public servant, and communicator, recalls Tom Grumbly, who was his aide at FDA. “A brilliant, funny, very special person,” says Grumbly, who leads a foundation that advocates for increased support for agricultural research. “He could talk on any level to people about science, without condescending to them. And he could stand toe to toe with the best scientists in the world.”
The combination of a towering intellect and a genuine concern for the individual served Kennedy well at Science. “He was a wonderful partner at AAAS,” says Alan Leshner, a former longtime chief executive at AAAS, which publishes Science. “He contributed his wisdom about science and public policy to our advocacy efforts on behalf of the community.”
As editor from 2000 to 2008, Kennedy led the journal through some high-profile controversies and churned out editorials on all matters affecting its readers. And it wasn’t his nature to equivocate.
Writing in 2007 about the need to curb farmers’ use of antibiotics, a fight he waged—and lost—while at FDA, he laid out a clear vision. “Of course, a physician may write a prescription for the wrong indication, or a patient will use more antibiotic in hope of subduing a virus. But antibiotic resistance will be solved only when we end the use [or rather, the abuse] of these agents in veterinary medicine.”
He also made no effort to hide his disdain for politicians who sought to block scientific results from reaching the public. A 2006 editorial headlined “A new gag order,” for example, deplored incidents at two science agencies that he characterized as “part of a troublesome pattern to which the [former President George W.] Bush administration has become addicted: Ignore evidence if it doesn’t favor the preferred policy outcome. Above all, don’t let the public get an idea that scientists inside government disagree with the party line.”
Kennedy’s long engagement with policy also left him with some scars. He resigned as president of Stanford in 1991 in the wake of disclosures that the university had violated federal rules governing the use of federal research dollars. He felt that congressional critics had unfairly singled out Stanford for practices that were common across academia, telling the media that “we were the first penguin off the ice floe, and we didn’t find it fun.”
But that bruising experience didn’t shake his faith in the value of public discourse on issues affecting the scientific community and the need for scientists to become engaged in policy. He was an early and forceful voice, for example, in urging climate researchers to be more aggressive in explaining the threats posed by climate change. (His concern for the environment was also reflected in his passion for birdwatching; when at Science, he would share recent sightings with staffers who were also birders.)
Being editor of Science also meant dealing with a host of thorny problems. The magazine’s publication in 2001 of the first sequence of the human genome, for example, was preceded by sensitive negotiations with the two competing teams—as well as Science’s publishing competitor, the journal Nature—over the timing of the landmark publications and the sharing of data. And in 2006 he released the results of an independent inquiry into how the magazine had come to publish two papers involving fraudulent stem cell research conducted by a team of South Korean scientists.
Kennedy likely had those incidents—and many others—in mind when he penned a farewell editorial in February 2008 to his successor, Bruce Alberts. “I want to beg Bruce to let me write the occasional editorial … a chance to poach a little whenever some outrage exceeds my tolerance level,” he wrote. That wish was granted, and he continued to write for the magazine until suffering a stroke in 2015.
In that 2008 editorial, Kennedy offered advice to Alberts on editing a scientific journal. But it could also stand as an epitaph on his long career in the public arena.
“Be as fair as you can, sympathize with anger, confess institutional error when appropriate, and be firm,” Kennedy wrote. “And when the disappointed complain to members of the AAAS Board, remember to smile!”