JEFFREY BROWN: It's the time of year for top ten lists and Science magazine has just weighed in with its choices of the breakthroughs and big stories in the world of science.
With us to look at some of them is Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University and now editor-in-chief of Science magazine. He also helps us as an advisor to the NewsHour's Science Unit.
Mr. Kennedy, welcome.
DONALD KENNEDY: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: I know that every list is going to be somewhat subjective, but I understand that your staff had little problem this year deciding on the top science story. Tell us about that.
DONALD KENNEDY: Let's say it was easier than in most years. I think the public attention and the scientific excitement about the Mars expedition really put it easily in first place. That's mostly I think because Mars is such a candidate planet for life, and everybody was already excited about the strong possibility that there had been water there that might have been a suitable incubator.
JEFFREY BROWN: The question and the search for water goes to some of these big questions that we have always asked ourselves, right, about where life came from, are we alone out there?
DONALD KENNEDY: We certainly know it came from water here. And so there was every reason to suppose that in an aquatic environment water might have been suitable for the generation of life elsewhere and of course Mars is the candidate planet. There was already considerable evidence from gullying on hillsides, all quite visible in the close-up views that the Mars explorers had given us. And what was needed was to close the circle by really looking on the ground for evidence that water had been there. And that's what Spirit and Opportunity were able to do.
JEFFREY BROWN: The other part of the story of the Mars rovers, of course, is the technological achievement, this remote robotics. How important was that?
DONALD KENNEDY: I think it's stunning to realize how much can be done by a remote geologist in this case or indeed by how much can be done by distant viewing technologies that we can send to various parts of the cosmos and get information back from them. Look, we've already had information from the rings of Saturn by the Cassini probe. It will soon send the Huygen impactor on to its major moon. We've sampled stardust; we've sampled solar wind and returned it to Earth. So much can be done now by instruments and technology that we send out there.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, another story on your list is one you called "The Littlest Human," and this was the finding in a cave in the Indonesian island of Flores. Tell us about that.
DONALD KENNEDY: Well, it's an astonishing finding. And of course this is a game in which a single bone can change one's view of the entire course of evolution. And because it's a human skull in this case, it has great relevance to us.
Three things about this finding. First, this skull is small and the body to which it belongs is small -- about 1 meter high. It's a very small-brained human, about 350 cubic centimeters. And the skull gives fairly clear indications of having belonged to a class of primitive humans. Java man is another example from the same region.
And finally, the date -- carbon dating was used here -- associated with this skull is stunningly recent -- 18,000 years ago. A geological second in time.
JEFFREY BROWN: So there would have been overlap.
DONALD KENNEDY: There would have been 30 or 40,000 years of overlap between this small, primitive human and large, aggressive modern humans that we know were in the area for 30 or 40,000 of the years in which we presume these small island humans existed at the same time.
JEFFREY BROWN: A term I've heard is island dwarfism, and I gather the idea is that animals, and I guess in this case humans, might have shrunk to deal with the small amount of resources available on an island.
DONALD KENNEDY: Dwarfism in isolated island populations is common for many species, including a number of species of mammals, elephants of two different groups, rhinoceroses, others. And so since we're mammals, too, we shouldn't be an exception. And there's no reason to think that this is extraordinary in that respect.
It's really the overlap with modern humans that gives us the big questions that we need to answer.
JEFFREY BROWN: So it's a story that really goes to how much we know about human development.
DONALD KENNEDY: Yes, I think it is, and it goes to a history of modern humans as they have gone to other isolated parts of the world where they have generally hunted to extinction other large species of mammals including in some cases other groups of hominids -- human, members of the human family. So it's a mystery how that coexistence came about and how it survived.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now I want to move to a story that is right up to the minute. This is one that you call "Healthy Partnerships" about new, what you call a revolution in public health.
DONALD KENNEDY: I think there is a revolution in how we manage to treat emerging infection. Infectious diseases that are either new, like HIV/AIDS, or reemerging, like tuberculosis, or old diseases that have been a persistent, chronic source of trouble for many developing countries; what's happening is that there's been a coming together of drug companies, of large foundations, of other institutions to collaborate in trying to resolve some of these problems.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you think is the impetus that has been driving that, because these are institutions that typically are fairly wary of each other?
DONALD KENNEDY: One impetus is need. I think another, another impetus is the need for certainly drug manufacturers to do something that will improve their credibility as institutions that exist in the public interest. And finally there's a very important factor of some foundations beginning to develop resources that are truly able to make them big players along with government in a game that previously was largely a government thing. The Gates Foundation is an especially good example, and they've been a major player in the global fund to fight AIDS, TB and malaria.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, now you have your list of breakthroughs, but you also have something called the breakdown of the year; this is something that did not go so well. And here you cite the relationship between the scientific community and the government. Tell us about what's happened this year.
DONALD KENNEDY: Well, hardly anything could be more important to the scientific community than its relationship with the governments and the public that support it, and that's been I think pretty good in the past in most parts of the world. This past year it's frayed a little bit around the edges.
In France and in Italy there were substantial protests even involving large sit-ins and demonstrations about tenure, about the way the government was allocating resources for research.
And in the United States a group of scientists, including in one case a group of some 60 Nobel Prize winners, wrote to challenge what they believed was an excessive use of political allegiance in the making of government appointments in science here in the U.S. That drew a strong response from the White House and from the president's science adviser and that is a debate that's slated to continue for some time as we begin to sort out how much politics in the form of allegiance to the policy of a newly elected government to figure in the appointment of science, scientists who are mainly to evaluate the merit of research proposals.
JEFFREY BROWN: I guess it's a reminder that many of the scientific breakthroughs that you talk about come with real policy implications, don't they?
DONALD KENNEDY: They do indeed. For example, the results of the successful Mars exploration certainly raises the question whether the government of the United States ought to invest more heavily in these than in manned explorations, or whether the excitement and adventuresomeness of the manned explorations entitles them to a larger allocation. That's going to have to be worked out.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, well, there's a lot more on your list, and let me tell our audience that you can see the entire list on the Web site of Science magazine, that's www.sciencemag.org.
Donald Kennedy, thanks a lot for joining us.
DONALD KENNEDY: Thank you very much, Jeff.