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Our Scientific Method

3 minute read
James Kelly

When we first began discussing last spring who should be on our list of America’s Best scientists and doctors, assistant managing editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt and his team pulled together more than 100 names in nearly as many specialties. That was the easy part. We then picked seven experts and asked them to help us winnow the list. That was the fun part.

Our panelists relished the task, in part because it gave them a chance to swap notes (and a little bit of gossip) on the contenders. It helped that they came from different disciplines: Thomas Cech, who heads the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1989, while Herbert Pardes, the president of New York Presbyterian Hospital, teaches psychiatry at Columbia, and J. Richard Gott is an astrophysicist at Princeton. M.I.T.’s Steven Pinker and Harvard’s Stephen Kosslyn specialize in brain and cognitive sciences; Thomas Lovejoy is a tropical biologist who serves as chief biodiversity adviser to the president of the World Bank; and Michael Novacek, provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History, is a vertebrate paleontologist.

The highlight of our collaboration came in May, when five of the experts joined TIME’s editors for lunch and worked through the list. “The rules were simple,” explains Phil. “Every name got a number: 1 for Must Do, 2 for Maybe, and 3 for No Way. I thought our guests would balk at rating their colleagues so crassly, but they played the game enthusiastically, perhaps because as academics and research funders they are skilled at recognizing talent and used to comparing diverse fields.”

By the end of the lunch, we were down to a few dozen names, and over the next few weeks Phil and the project’s two main reporters, Alice Park and Andrea Dorfman, further whittled the list to 18. Any list of the best, of course, is somewhat subjective, but we’re confident that everyone in this installment is at the top of their game.

We debated whether the cover image should be James Thomson, the shy assistant professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin who made history in 1998 by isolating and growing human embryonic stem cells. Americans obviously are divided about the morality of this research and the government’s role in funding it, but we decided that Thomson’s achievement is so astonishing–and the potential applications stirring up so much excitement–that he deserved to be on the cover. As Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy point out in an essay, “It tells you something about the times we live in that George W. Bush’s first big televised chat with the nation was not about war or welfare or weapons systems, but about bioethics.”

In coming installments, we’ll bring you our choices for America’s Best in Culture and Society, Business and Technology, and Politics and Community–dozens of people we think you’ll find as interesting as they are superlative.

James Kelly, Managing Editor

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