THE ART AND POLITICS OF SCIENCE by Harold Varmus (New York: W.W.Norton, 2009).
Is it nature or nurture? What factors produce a Nobel Laureate in cancer biology and a helmsman of important scientific establishments? How did Harold Varmus, a onetime graduate student in literature, remake himself into a brilliant medical researcher? How did he get where he is going? And continues to go, marrying science to politics—and the not inconsiderable gift of obtaining scientific funding.
We owe Varmus. With Michael Bishop, his medical cohort at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), he detected proto-oncogenes, tumor viruses causing cancer. The Nobel prize was Varmus and Bishop’s reward for this seminal discovery which affects much of cancer research today. Although the section on “doing science” is complex, he manages to explain the ins and outs of the ways proto-oncogenes operate and how scientists use this knowledge to target cancer treatment.
The book divides into four major sections: “becoming a scientist”; “doing science”; (becoming) a political scientist; and “continuing controversies.” Varmus’s contributions do not stop with oncogenes. Nor was his career always fruitful. Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), his career was marked by ups and downs. He details the “bad times” at NIH with amazing frankness, a hallmark of the book. He even tells how Harvard Medical School rejected his application, showing that admissions officers are not always so smart.
Varmus does not believe that scientists can exist in a vacuum. Quoting Joshua Lederberg that “Science cannot exist without a community of scientists,” he adds:
“Science is an inherently paradoxical activity. Nearly all great ideas come from individual minds, and they are often first tested experimentally by a single person. But validation and acceptance of new information requires communication, convening, and consensus building—activities that involve a community. In many ways, it is this balance between the imagination of the individual and the conviction of the community that makes science particularly interesting and gratifying. Scientists may work and compete as individuals, but the competitive efforts are ultimately directed to the construction of a common edifice, knowledge of the natural world….
“…Molecular biology has shown that all forms of life on earth make use of the same basic rules for encoding and transmitting information. ..It is extraordinary to have such dimensions to our knowledge. Doing science to learn these things is the best way I know to live with an incomprehensible universe.”
Today, Varmus is president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and co-chairs President Obama’s The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He is more a man of the community of science than a lone scientist. One wonders where he will go from here.
In this regard, Varmus’s book leaves the reader wondering just who this man is. He devotes four lines to his wife and sons, little mention of his mother’s breast cancer as an influence on his cancer research. With wit and self-deprecation, he talks about the roads taken—but tends to omit the whys of the roads not taken, how much was nature, how much nurture.
The Art and Politics of Science leaves the reader longing for another volume to pick up where this one leaves off.