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The Art and Politics of Science

By Harold Varmus ’61. W.W. Norton.

Reviewed by Richard Goldsby

Although Harold Varmus is no stranger to Terry Gross or Charlie Rose, few of your dinner companions or fellow commuters will have heard of this remarkably accomplished man. Even fewer will be aware of the details of his long and still-growing list of contributions to science and global health. Varmus is a Nobel laureate and an adviser to presidents. He has been director of the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest biomedical research institution, and is now president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the oldest and largest cancer treatment center in the United States. He is also a co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

In the standard “How I won the Nobel Prize” memoir, the laureate traces the re­markable insights and herculean efforts that culminate in the award. This is usually enough. The Art and Politics of Science, Varmus’ engaging tour of a life of extraordinary achievement and influence, meets those expectations and goes beyond them. The author is one of those rare individuals for whom winning the prize is not so much a defining life destination as a point of departure.

But let’s not minimize the prize. It had long been known that some cancers are caused by viruses; the question was how. Varmus and his colleague, Michael Bishop, undertook to find out how a member of the now famous retrovirus group caused a particular type of cancer in chickens. They made the surprising discovery that a key cancer-causing gene carried by the tumor virus was actually a perverted version of a normal gene. Somehow, this gene had been acquired from normal, noncancerous cells by some distant ancestor buried in the evolutionary past of the virus. This was very big news. Granted, winning a Nobel always involves bringing down big game, but the discovery that a key cancer-causing gene, an oncogene, can be generated from a normal gene, a proto-oncogene, was epochal, a paradigm shift that fundamentally changed thinking about the way cancer arises.

Although Varmus was a successful student at Amherst, the C he received in organic chemistry did not suggest the career path he would eventually travel. On the contrary, his service as editor-in-chief of the Amherst Student and his honors thesis on Dickens (William Pritchard was his thesis adviser) predicted a career in English. Indeed, he spent a year or so as a graduate student in Harvard’s English department before entering medical school at Columbia. When Varmus completed his medical training, the Vietnam War, a conflict he opposed, was in high gear and harvesting many of America’s young men. For a few talented young physicians, conducting research at the NIH represented an alternative that could keep them out of Vietnam. After two years of such an apprenticeship in the laboratory of Ira Pastan, Varmus emerged a biomedical scientist.

In writing that is remarkable for its clarity, The Art and Politics of Science provides one of the more interesting and
engaging accounts of a piece of scientific work that I have seen. Nonscientists will grasp and admire the reasoning that led Varmus and Bishop to the series of discoveries that ultimately revealed the fundamental and unexpected principle of oncogenesis. Later in the book, from the high summit of the directorship of the NIH, a position he held for almost six years, Varmus shares the view of biomedical science and its many interfaces with the larger society. On one occasion, we see Varmus seated next to Hillary Clinton during her husband’s State of the Union address. That’s good for Varmus and good for biomedical science. But at least twice during his tenure as director, Varmus was threatened with being fired. As we see the difficulty of navigating these many and sometimes treacherous currents, we realize how vital it is to the health of biomedical research that the director be a savvy political scientist.

Among other topics the book visits is embryonic stem cell research, and Varmus does not shrink from a reasoned indictment of the George W. Bush administration’s ideologically driven handling of this important issue. In this regard, The Art and Politics of Science makes a telling and important point. We have the good fortune to live in an age “of unprecedented technology,” Varmus writes, in which “what we have done and can soon do … would have been unimaginable even a generation ago.” Varmus is talking about what we can do to heal, to repair, to alleviate pain, even to cure. But, as his book explains, “our knowledge does not improve the societies in which we live unless other kinds of actions, both political and pragmatic, are taken.” This is a book to read and then pass on to others with an earnest hope that they will enjoy it as much and learn as much from it as you have.

Goldsby is a professor of biology and a John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer at Amherst.

other reviews and Interviews

The Washington Post review 

The American Scientist review 

Listen to Dr. Varmus’s “Science Friday” interview on NPR

Watch the interview with Dr. Varmus and Jon Stuart on The Daily Show