Obama Science Adviser On Memoir
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now, a talk with one of President Obama's sounding boards on matters of science, biologist Harold Varmus. The president named Dr. Varmus a co-chair of the Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, which could be a busy area. In his inaugural address, Mr. Obama said this.
(Soundbite of Barack Obama's inaugural address)
President BARACK OBAMA: We'll restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health-care's quality and lower its cost.
SIEGEL: Harold Varmus won a Nobel Prize for his cancer research. He was Bill Clinton's director of the National Institutes of Health, and he is now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He's also the author of a new book, "The Art and Politics of Science." It's part memoir, but also part layman's introduction to retroviral oncogenes. Welcome to the program, Dr. Varmus.
Dr. HAROLD VARMUS (Co-Chair, Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, Barack Obama Administration; Author, "The Art and Politics of Science"; President, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center): Thank you.
SIEGEL: And first, President Obama spoke of restoring science to its rightful place. A restoration sort of implies there's been a user-patient(ph) at work for the past few years. A fair image?
Dr. VARMUS: Perhaps, although most of us who are in the scientific community are looking to the future. We believe that science has the power to do many good things for our society, helping to control disease, and to improve sources of energy, and reactivate the economy. And we're not going to look back and lament what happened in the last two administrations. But we do like the forward-looking positive attitude that the new president has spoken of directly in his inauguration address.
SIEGEL: By the last two administrations, you mean, the two Bush administrations, you're speaking of.
Dr. VARMUS: Yes, I do.
SIEGEL: How do you think of science's rightful place in federal government?
Dr. VARMUS: Well, the relationship between the scientific community and government has become much larger over the last 50 years than it was right before the Second World War. The scientific community feels that it has the power to discover important things that help us fight wars, grow food, make water potable, to create inventions that help our industries, and it is in the realm of the public interest for society to help support our efforts.
At the same time, we know that many important decisions that are made, whether it's about nuclear weapons treaties or about selection of new means of generating energy or supporting health-care efforts are going to be informed by science. And it's the responsibility of scientists not simply to work in a lonely tower on the pure exercise of curiosity, but also to connect with societal goals.
SIEGEL: I want you to talk a little bit about life in that lonely tower. It isn't so lonely, first of all, as you write.
Dr. VARMUS: It's not lonely at all.
SIEGEL: Life science is a team sport, I gather.
Dr. VARMUS: Exactly. It's not just life sciences - actually all sciences are team sports and all of us wave the banner of collaboration and interaction very forcefully. And I think that's a common misconception that we're geeks and social misfits who don't enjoy the camaraderie of one of the most exciting adventures that human beings can experience these days.
SIEGEL: We know the end of the story when you relate your own work in oncogenes, I guess is the simplest way for me to say it, we know in the end that you and your colleague will share a Nobel Prize for it. When you're actually doing the work, do you know that you're doing productive or successful science at the time? And if not, when do you receive the validation to know that something that is taking years is actually leading to some successful result?
Dr. VARMUS: Well, it's an interesting question. I would actually somewhat contest the assumption that the Nobel Prize is the end of this story, because indeed it isn't. It's something that happens along the way. You don't expect it. One of the things that I tried to emphasize in the book is that there are discoveries that are instantaneously recognizable as being fairly profound. I think ours was probably not quite in that category. It was viewed as important, but it was only with time and with the work both collaborative and independent of our own, that established the significance of what we had discovered.
But all of us who were involved in the discovery of the cellular genes that are often responsible for human cancer realize that we are very far from the end of the line. That while some people have won prizes and many people have had exciting careers, that indeed, the progress we've made against human cancer has been confined to a much greater understanding of the disease.
It's only now that we're beginning to see new ways forward to control the disease that have - that's based on the kind of discoveries that were made 30 years ago. And it's the application of those discoveries that really will matter in the long run and get us to the real goal, which is controlling a dread disease.
SIEGEL: But for scientists, is the understanding itself - is that an end in itself? And is the application almost a justification for why you should keep me doing my real pursuit, which is the pursuit of knowledge about what this life thing is all about.
Dr. VARMUS: Well, this is the crux of the traditional argument that occurs over how we proceed with the funding of the national effort. And I think it's important that the public understand that on the one hand, the simple joy of discovery is not something that should be suppressed, that it does lead to knowledge that is applicable to many problems in our society.
I think most people who pick up their cell phones and iPods and take a new medicine have a poor understanding of the science behind these applications. And I think it's a responsibility of scientists to use their talents as explainers, as teachers, to make the public understand that our country, our society, our world is going to deal with the enormous threats it faces in almost every direction only by understanding how the world works in a more profound way.
SIEGEL: Harold Varmus, thank you very much for talking with us.
Dr. VARMUS: My pleasure. Thank you very much, Robert.
SIEGEL: Harold Varmus, who was the director of the National Institutes of Health and is currently president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, has written a book called "The Art and Politics of Science."
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