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Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award
Granted to Dr. L. Dennis Smith of Nebraska
For his steadfast support of academic freedom and for his advocacy for the responsible conduct of science, Dr. L. Dennis Smith, a developmental biologist and president of the University of Nebraska, has been named to receive the highly coveted American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2002 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award.
The award is presented annually to honor scientists and engineers whose exemplary actions have served to foster scientific freedom and responsibility.
Smith's commitment to scientific freedom and responsibility were put to the test in 1999, when press reports drew attention to research being conducted at the University of Nebraska Medical Center that was designed to shed light on neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, AIDS dementia and multiple sclerosis. Because these studies, funded under grants from the National Institutes of Health and other sources, used brain cells from fetal tissue obtained from a local abortion clinic, strong objections were raised by some religious leaders as well as top elected state policymakers.
State leaders warned Smith that it was "unwise" to use public funds for such research, and that continuing these studies could kindle a debate about university funding. They advised the university to cease using fetal cells, and a bill was introduced in the legislature to ban the use of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses.
In response, Smith expressed respect for individual moral views, but also carefully outlined the critical need for the research. "Your request [to cease the research]," Smith wrote, "strikes at the very heart of academic freedom." The elected Board of Regents, including members with widely varying social and political beliefs, subsequently voted unanimously to support the research. Because efforts to introduce new legislation banning fetal cell research persist, Smith continues to champion the right of scientists to pursue new knowledge in a responsible manner and in a climate of academic openness.
To further the cause of scientific freedom and responsibility, Smith created the Nebraska Bioethics Advisory Commission, composed of a wide cross section of scientists and lay people. The Commission has identified overarching principles to govern the ethical conduct of future biomedical research at the University of Nebraska.
"The ability to undertake legitimate research without external interference, including that from political and religious sectors, is fundamental to the excellence of our postsecondary institutions," said Smith, whose studies some 30 years ago of cell division in frogs helped lay the groundwork for three researchers who ultimately won a Nobel Prize in medicine for identifying the entire cycle of a cell. "I am proud that the Nebraska Board of Regents unanimously backed my stance on academic freedom," he said. "I am thankful and humbled that AAAS has honored me with this award."
Smith became president of the University of Nebraska on March 1, 1994. Previously, he served as executive vice chancellor of the University of California at Irvine (1990-1994), and earlier served on the faculty at Purdue University. He earned his Ph.D. in 1964 in experimental embryology, and his bachelor's degree in 1959 in zoology and chemistry from Indiana University.
The Award recognizes scientists and engineers who have:
- acted to protect the public's health, safety, or welfare;
- focused public attention on important potential impacts of science and technology on society by their responsible participation in public policy debates; or
- established important new precedents in carrying out the social responsibilities or in defending the professional freedom of scientists and engineers.
This annual award was launched in 1980 and consists of a prize of $5,000, a commemorative plaque, and complimentary registration and reimbursement for travel and hotel expenses to attend the AAAS Annual Meeting.
"By presenting the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award each year, AAAS seeks to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers as they begin their careers," explained Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer for AAAS and executive publisher of its journal, Science.
18 November 2002