Book Review: 'The Art and Politics of Science' by Harold Varmus

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By Seth Shulman,
who is the author of "Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration."
Thursday, February 5, 2009


By Harold Varmus

Norton. 315 pp $24.95

President Obama made a wise choice when he appointed Harold Varmus to co-chair his reinvigorated President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Varmus is one of the world's most widely respected and acclaimed scientists, a Nobel laureate in medicine and a National Medal of Science recipient. Not only did he run a path-breaking research laboratory for decades, he has also mastered the esoteric worlds of science policy and science funding, heading the National Institutes of Health during the Clinton administration and now serving as president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

In his memoir, "The Art and Politics of Science," Varmus offers a plain-spoken and fascinating story of his path from graduate student in English literature to the forefront of biomedical research. His journey to the highest echelons of the scientific establishment is as interesting for its incidental details as for its glimpse into the process of modern biomedical science.

The book, based on three lectures Varmus gave in 2004, chronicles his decision to become a scientist, the cancer research that led to his 1989 Nobel Prize and finally, his more recent work as a high-level administrator -- what he calls his work as "a political scientist."

The middle section -- the tale of his scientific research -- forms the heart of the book, and its story is illuminating and clearly told despite the technical complexity of the subject matter. Along with his research partner, J. Michael Bishop at the University of California at San Francisco medical school, Varmus discovered a class of cancer genes called proto-oncogenes that have helped scientists understand how cancer is triggered.

Varmus relays the excitement of his first eureka moments and his steady fixation on how tumor viruses multiply and how, exactly, they cause cancer. He also showcases the importance of social and institutional factors to his work, such as the impact of the famous Gordon conferences that draw together many researchers working on related questions. His account conveys both the excitement of conducting scientific research and the astounding pace of discovery in his field, which has already yielded new treatments built directly upon the basic research he pioneered.

Varmus's modesty and candor come through in abundance. It is refreshing when he acknowledges the important help he received as he entered the political arena, such as the professional coaching by a public-speaking consultant and the indispensable help of the chief financial officer at NIH, who guided him in the transition from heading a $1 million laboratory with 25 employees to running the NIH with its $11 billion budget, 20,000 employees and 30,000 grant recipients.

Varmus comes across as so even-tempered and politic throughout that his account can sometimes seem bloodless, glossing over the fierce competition, tenacity and ego required to succeed in science. (One thinks, by contrast, of the cutthroat competition and cattiness detailed in James Watson's book "The Double Helix.") There is, in other words, not much dirt here; Varmus seems to have made few enemies.

Perhaps more problematic is Varmus's recurring preoccupation with the role serendipity has played throughout his career. He credits a chance meeting at a cafe, for instance, with leading to his intensive involvement in the Public Library of Science, which seeks to provide open digital access to scientific research publications, a crusade he has spearheaded forcefully in recent years.

He offers colorful detail throughout, from his trip with a scientific delegation to Antarctica to his experiences testifying before congressional committees. But he repeatedly casts his eye on the catalytic chance events that influenced his career. The Vietnam War, he notes for instance, pushed him toward scientific research to avoid being drafted into a fight he "fervently opposed"; his background in literature (he spent a year as an English literature graduate student at Harvard before switching to medical school) won him entry into the NIH laboratory of biomedical researcher Ira Pastan because Pastan's wife, Linda, a poet, had often complained that her husband's colleagues seldom talked about books and Pastan thought it might be helpful to redress the problem; then Pastan's unexpected shift from studying the thyroid gland to pursuing new and exciting research far outside his field dramatically changed Varmus's research trajectory.

While the emphasis on serendipity makes for interesting reading, it often veils the importance of Varmus's own passions and prevents the reader from understanding what makes him tick. Varmus notes that he didn't want his memoir to sound as if things had happened according to "a certain logic" when, in fact, they could easily have gone a different way. But, whether through modesty or denial (he acknowledges but plays down the role of his mother's breast cancer in his decision to focus on the disease, for instance), the effect is precisely the opposite. The unintended result is often to leave the reader with the false impression of Varmus as some kind of privileged Forrest Gump of science: a talented, well-intentioned and receptive man, blown by many historical winds into positions of surprising power and influence. His consistent record of accomplishment -- greatly benefiting cancer sufferers and all proponents of a robust biomedical scientific enterprise -- surely rebuts that analysis. For all his modesty, though, and for all the quirks of fate he relates in his illustrious career, readers will surely come away glad Harold Varmus made the choices he did.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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