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The Art and Politics of Scienceby Harold Varmus
Synopses & Reviews
"The Art and Politics of Science is a unique work by a remarkable global leader: a brilliant scientist with the sensibilities of an artist and the leadership skills of a consummate politician. Harold Varmus has done it all--Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs in cancer biology, masterful leadership of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during its period of greatest expansion, statesmanship of the highest order in global health, and cheerful trench warfare to bring biomedical publications to the open-source Internet age. [This] book is captivating, fascinating, and ever instructive. It will be read the world over with enormous delight and benefit."--Jeffrey D. Sachs, director, The Earth Institute
"Through an artful melding of science and policy, Harold Varmus conveys not only the excitement of forefront research but also the richly textured human dramas that swirl around pivotal discoveries."--Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe
"Varmus makes this era's revolution in biological knowledge as comprehensible as it possibly can be. Varmus's broad abilities in scientific, literary, and political realms are evident in this graceful and often gently humorous book."--James Fallows, author of Blind into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq
"If you've ever wondered about the early life of a budding scientist, the experience of doing cutting-edge research, or the translation of brilliant work into public service, read the account of this passionate, politically engaged, deeply humane scientist and marvel at the richness of a life well spent."--Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever
"Harold Varmus is a person of legendary charm and limitless vision who has put his gifted mind to the service of science, health, and above all . . . the people of the world. I loved this book."--Donna E. Shalala, president, University of Miami, and former secretary, Health and Human Services
"Any time any one of us has a cancer scare, or worse, we can be grateful to Harold Varmus and his extraordinary life in science. We are all lucky that Dr. Varmus left literature for medicine. And now, reading this book, we can be grateful that he is so very gifted in both."--Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Beak of the Finch
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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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' 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' 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' research trajectory. While the emphasis on serendipity makes for interesting reading, it often veils the importance of Varmus' 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. Reviewed by Seth Shulman, who is the author of 'Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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A Nobel Prize'"winning cancer biologist, leader of major scientific institutions, and scientific adviser to President Obama reflects on his remarkable career.
Jeffrey Sachs has called Harold Varmus a "global scientist-statesman who bridges science and society to solve the weightiest global challenges." But as readers will learn in this engaging memoir chronicling one man's series of remarkable careers, as well as some of the central health-policy issues of our time, Varmus didn't decide that he was drawn to medicine until he was one year into a PhD in English literature! Changing course in characteristically adventurous fashion, Varmus dove headfirst into medical school, shifted shortly after graduating from practice to research, and soon found himself at the forefront of cancer research at the University of California, San Francisco, on his way toward a Nobel Prize in Medicine.
In 1993, Varmus transformed from an academic scientist to a political one when President Clinton asked him to direct the National Institutes of Health. After six years at the NIH, he took the reins as president of the world-renowned Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a position he still holds. Along the way, Varmus has continued his own laboratory work, remains committed to collaborative science, and still finds time to ride his bike to work.
Beyond the elegant combination of science and biography, this is a book about health issues of truly global importance. Varmus's work on cancer-causing genes foreshadowed the development of the recent targeted therapies for cancer. At the NIH, he not only persuaded Congress to commit record funds to national health programs but also turned attention to international concerns like the worldwide malaria crisis. And, as he discusses in these pages, he has long been an enthusiastic yet nuanced supporter of stem cell research. The Art and Politics of Science is a glimpse into the world of high-stakes, big-budget science narrated by a man intimately acquainted with its everyday applications--an education for people in all walks of life from a scientist whose own research and professional commitments helped to shape our scientific age.
A PhD candidate in English literature at Harvard University, Harold Varmus discovered he was drawn instead to medicine and eventually found himself at the forefront of cancer research at the University of California, San Francisco. In this 'timely memoir of a remarkable career' (American Scientist), Varmus considers a life"s work that thus far includes not only the groundbreaking research that won him a Nobel Prize but also six years as the director of the National Institutes of Health; his current position as the president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; and his important, continuing work as scientific adviser to President Obama. From this truly unique perspective, Varmus shares his experiences from the trenches of politicized battlegrounds ranging from budget fights to stem cell research, global health to science publishing.
About the Author
Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, lives with his wife, Constance Casey, and their two sons in New York City.
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