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Varmus thinks broadly about basic and applied scientific research as an enterprise. His solutions emphasize cooperation over competition, and free, creative inquiry over narrow methodological and disciplinary commitments. He is an important voice from the golden age of genetic research, and one of the minds who deeply understands the art and politics of science. Hopefully, his voice can help lead us through dark times. I call on everyone to make your voices heard and support medical research in any which way that you can.

This evening I had the pleasure of listening to Nobel Prize-winning medical scientist Harold Varmus speak at a fine American university. Dr. Varmus has served the public as the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and is currently serving as the Director of the National Cancer Institute.

The first part of his discussion was about retroviral oncogenes, an area where Varmus has considerable expertise. Some of the lines of research that Varmus has pioneered have even yielded fruit in the form of effective treatments for certain kinds of leukemia. It was really a delight to hear about the history of this line of research into cancer genetics, especially given the complexities of conducting research into oncogenic mutations of cells by viruses that were induced and studied with fairly rudimentary methods before the advent of advanced DNA sequencing techniques. But Varmus also spoke on another one of his areas of expertise, the politics of science. He devoted the second part of his discussion to the environment of medical research.

Varmus, speaking with some expertise from the perspective of an NIH director, identified three major problems with medical research today:

1.    Existing lines of research with established clinical success
2.    Onerous resource constraints
3.    Hypercompetitive atmosphere.

While 1. may seem counter-intuitive, the inertia of established clinical products from basic and applied medical research steal the thunder from some, potentially revolutionary, creative areas of medical scientific inquiry. The resource-constrained has a lot to do with federal budget battles, as the amount of funding provided by the federal government has been vast, and the impact of this on basic research is staggering. Sequestration and other political stunts of fiscal conservatives are only making the constraints tighter. This scarcity of funding is creating an environment where many researchers compete for a smaller and smaller number of grants, and the average age of a researcher landing there first major grant has gone up. Funding scarcity coupled with the elitism of the contemporary academy is driving a winner-takes-all spirit of high competition for those in advanced research, and this is having deleterious effects on the culture of the scientific enterprise.

Far from content with merely diagnosing the problem, Varmus proffered a strategy for overcoming these problems:

•    Use pure discovery platforms for clinical success
•    Focus on important intractable problems
•    Let the community define unanswered questions
•    Give free rein to powerful imaginations
•    Improve the environment for doing research (hypercompetitive atmosphere)

Varmus thinks broadly about basic and applied scientific research as an enterprise. His solutions emphasize cooperation over competition, and free, creative inquiry over narrow methodological and disciplinary commitments. He is an important voice from the golden age of genetic research, and one of the minds who deeply understands the art and politics of science. Hopefully, his voice can help lead us through dark times. I call on everyone to make your voices heard and support medical research in any which way that you can.

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