The Art and Politics of Science

The Art and Politics of Science by Harold Varmus '61

by Harold Varmus '61

In 1993, Varmus’s prominence in research and his interest in science policy led to his appointment by President Clinton as director of the world’s largest science funding agency, the National Institutes of Health. There Varmus helped to double the NIH budget to support grants for basic and clinical research and strengthened the research programs within the NIH itself. After six years at the NIH, Varmus took the reins as president of the world-renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he established new graduate training programs and oversaw the construction of a new research center and new clinical facilities.

Throughout his career, Varmus has maintained his focus on important societal issues—as a passionate proponent of more equitable means of distributing scientific work, such as public digital libraries and “open access” publishing; as an advocate for global health, initially focused on the worldwide malaria crisis; as a nuanced supporter of human embryo and stem cell research; and as a scientist studying the cancer-causing genes that inspired the development of recent targeted therapies for cancer. In addition, he has continued his own lab work, remains deeply committed to collaborative science, and still rides his bike to work.

Organized into short sections that combine the science behind Varmus’s discoveries with the passion that directed his intellectual path, THE ART AND POLITICS OF SCIENCE is at its core a book about some of the greatest scientific, medical, and social issues of our time. This memoir provides a glimpse into the world of high stakes, big-budget science, pulling back the curtain on tensions between laboratory researchers and clinical investigators, between scientists and politicians. For scientists and science-enthusiasts alike, it is an eye-opening education from a leader in the field whose own research and professional commitments have helped to shape our scientific age.

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Submitted by Richard C. Elton on Wednesday, 10/6/2010, at 4:27 PM

I enjoyed reading Harold Varmus’ "The Art and Politics of Science". Admittedly I skimmed some parts but it is a well written story of one man’s successful venture into scientific research. I related to his being told by Professor Whitney (organic chemistry) to drop the course because back in 1952 when I had been accepted by the Univ. Of Rochester Med School I asked Whitney if I should wait until I heard from Harvard. He graciously said I should accept Rochester because Harvard was looking for the more research minded students...basically I was not smart enough for Harvard. I think it was Michael Chrichton who was told in Harvard Med Sch that he should either pay attention to his medical interest or write fiction but not both. How wrong some of our leaders can be.

The same government that funded Varmus’ HIH also funded my foray into the civil war in Vietnam in ‘67-68, admittedly as an orthopedic surgeon so danger to me was minimal. Our hospital treated the VC and NVA as well as civilians and the allied troops so I formed a sort of bond with the "other side" and was pleased to visit VN just last March and note the country is alive and well. I like to think the 10 years or so of our involvement allowed for the dulling of the edge of communism such that when the North finally won they allowed the South to pursue their more capitalistic ways, which they are doing now.

Varmus is an example of the underlying strength of our country. There is time to "mature" and there is a place for just about anybody. The trick is for people to come to know what it is they really want to do. Varmus is a part of the revolutionary new medical developments which will produce medicines targeted to specific diseases. I recall thinking in Med Sch how lucky I was to become a doctor when doctors were really just beginning to actually help people. And I have grown up with the field of orthopaedic surgery.

As more and more is known of cellular function and chemical reactions the more I am impressed with the wisdom of Paul of the bible who likens a man to an eye or an ear of the body of mankind. I bring this to a cellular or even chemical level. In Dr. Kidder’s Biochemistry course we learned of "complement" which brought two substances together then left without becoming part of the result and I was reminded of the person at a cocktail party goes around introducing people to each other but then leaves them to do their thing so to speak. I am just now beginning to think of societal ills in terms of human disease. I remember writing in college American Studies that unions had become like a cancer to society.

Good book, Harold, we all have a story to tell and yours is unique and well told....................................................Dick Elton