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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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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (10+ / 0-)

    There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things. -Vannevar Bush 1945

    by Nathan Jaco on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 06:03:41 PM PST

  •  For those of you interested in supporting medical (6+ / 0-)

    research, here is one way you can help: http://folding.stanford.edu/

    There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things. -Vannevar Bush 1945

    by Nathan Jaco on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 06:04:56 PM PST

  •  BTW, the name of the drug for treating leukemia (5+ / 0-)

    is Gleevec (STI572). It has been used to effectively treat chronic myeloid leukemia (CML). CML used to be a deadly disease, killing patients within five years. Now, due to the enzymatic effects of Gleevec, CML patients can go on to have normal life expectancies.

    There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things. -Vannevar Bush 1945

    by Nathan Jaco on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 06:07:28 PM PST

  •  Thanks for (6+ / 0-)

    introducing us to a great mind and a challenger of the status quo.

  •  I only dimly get what a "pure discovery platform" (3+ / 0-)

    is; could you elaborate?

    Dick Cheney 2/14/10: "I was a big supporter of waterboarding"

    by Bob Love on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 07:38:25 PM PST

    •  Jargon? = "pure discovery platform" (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Bob Love, Andrew F Cockburn

      Without trying to steal Nathan Jaco's thunder here let me try to state my understanding of the issues contained in Bob Love's question above.

      "Varmus thinks broadly about basic and applied scientific research as an enterprise."
      That quote from the diary gives clues, I think, that what Varmus is talking about here is the "spectrum of research" (let's call it that) that has "pure" research on one extreme and "applied" research on the other.  

      Pure research refers to studies done for the sake of gaining knowledge about something, may not have immediate application and are not done with applicability in mind.  Applied research, instead, has as its purpose the solution of a practical problem and thus has applicability in mind and purpose.

      I would say that the words "pure discovery platform" that baffle Bob Love and myself is just jargon for the ideas above: Varmus (my interpretation) believes that too much "instrumental" research is done with -perhaps- the profit motive and goal in mind, while the joys of finding knowledge for knowledge's sake have been de-emphasized.
      .
      .

  •  Need To End Francis Collins' Factory Science Era (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Andrew F Cockburn

    All the money spent on the human genome project and HapMaps could have been spent of laboratory research that would have been much more productive.  The return from those big centralized projects was astonishingly meager.  

    Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

    by bernardpliers on Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 08:13:37 PM PST

    •  Boy are you wrong about that. (0+ / 0-)

      Sequencing the genome was incredibly important. The first times are the hardest and the most expensive but that must come first. You can't develop cheap quick ways to sequence until you do the hard first work. Now we can sequence a person genome for a thousand dollars more of less.

      It is leading the way for personalized medicine if nothing else.

      I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

      by samddobermann on Sat Nov 23, 2013 at 04:52:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Human Genome Project Did Enourmous Damage (0+ / 0-)

        If those resources had been made available to individual researchers, we probably would have made much more progress.

        The Human Genome Project found a surprisingly low number of genes.  In fact, they only discovered about a thousand genes that had not already been discovered by individual labs, not the thirty to eighty thousand new genes that were predicted.

        HapMap version one was a bust, so they had to do HapMap two.  This also was such a bust that when Collins wrote the Science paper wrapping up the project his only two coauthors were people that worked for him.

        The idea that there was some statistical voodoo in the  HapMap that would make trio and pedigree analysis  obsolete turned out to be total bullshit. For that you should read "An utter refutation of the fundamental theorem of the HapMap" by Terwilliger and Hiekkalinna.
        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/...
        Terwilliger and Hiekkalinna refute the statistical assumptions behind the hHapMap, which most scientists did not believe anyway.

        Behind the HapMap was an anti-intellectual bias against the people doing traditional genetics.  They were told "You just don't understand this stuff, because you aren't a code monkey. Any statistician will tell you this is child play."  Of course, these were the same people who only a couple years earlier had been claiming they had statistical methods that could spot a 10% difference in using only two microarrays, which was also bullshit.  But really, it was all about siphoning off of research money into factory style facilities with instrumentation from one manufacturer.

        In Collins HapMap Two wrap-up paper, he states in the intro that he will refute Terwilliger and Hiekkalinna, and then he does not mention them in the rest of the paper.

        Anyway, even before the HapMap launched, the cytogeneticists were saying that individual's had wide variation in the size of their chromosomes, so that was another widely known hole in the theory big enough to drive a truck through, but that made no impression on people driven by their contempt for empirical data.

        Lastly, let's not forget that the drug companies were all over the idea of an automated discovery process that relied on a few junior programmers and no scientific subject matter experts.  By 2005, the transformational benefits of genomics had failed to arrive and the drug companies  were floundering.  With empty drug development pipelines, they announced they were going to focus on cosmetics and sport drinks.

        Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

        by bernardpliers on Sat Nov 23, 2013 at 06:38:12 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

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