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2002 Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Recipient

2002 Award Recipients

AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility


This year’s recipient of the AAAS Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility is Dr. L. Dennis Smith, President of the University of Nebraska. He is honored for his steadfast commitment to academic freedom in the face of mounting social and political pressure.

Dr. L. Dennis Smith, a developmental biologist, serves as the president of the University of Nebraska where his commitment to scientific freedom and responsibility has been tested. In 1999, press reports drew attention to the research being conducted at the University of Nebraska Medical Center on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, AIDS dementia, and multiple sclerosis. Since these studies were funded from grants from the National Institutes of Health and other sources and used brain cells of fetal tissues obtained from a local abortion clinic, strong objections were raised by religious leaders as well as 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.A bill was introduced in the legislature to ban the use of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses.

In response, Smith carefully outlined for state policymakers the critical need for research, noting that the state’s request struck at the very heart of academic freedom. The elected Board of Regents, which included members from a variety of social backgrounds, voted unanimously in support of President Smith and the research. As such efforts to ban fetal cell research persist, Smith continues to champion the right of scientists to pursue new knowledge in a responsible way and in a climate of openness.To further the cause of scientific freedom and responsibility, Smith facilitated the creation of the Nebraska Bioethics Advisory Commission, composed of scientists and lay people alike.The Commission has identified principles and ethical conduct by which biomedical research may continue at the University of Nebraska.

Smith earned his Ph.D. in experimental embryology and his bachelor’s degree in zoology and chemistry from Indiana University. He has served in various positions as an instructor in embryology at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, as a staff scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory, and as head of Purdue University’s Department of Biological Sciences. After Purdue, he served as dean of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of California–Irvine where he became executive vice chancellor and then acting chancellor from 1990 to 1994. Smith became the president of the University of Nebraska in 1994.

Smith has been active in the American Association for Higher Education, the American Association for State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities, among others. In addition, he serves on the boards of the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs, the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, the Nebraska Arts Council, and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Smith has published almost 100 research papers and numerous abstracts in areas such as cell biology, developmental biology, biochemistry, and molecular biology.

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