Friday, January 9, 2009

Life Sciences in the Obama Administration: A Perspective on Harold Varmus

On December 26, President-elect Obama announced his team of science and technology advisors, including MIT geneticist Eric Lander and Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan Kettering, former Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a co-recipient (along with J. Michael Bishop) of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes. These appointments signal a fresh political perspective on scientific advice. Announcing his selections, Obama said that promoting science goes beyond providing resources, that it is also about promoting free inquiry and listening to what scientists have to say, “especially when it is inconvenient." Varmus is out with a new book in February, The Art and Politics of Science, which chronicles his experiences at NIH. Of particular interest is his discussion of how research priorities are set and the ongoing tension between political and scientific interests. "One of my first exposures to this problem occurred soon after I arrived at the NIH," Varmus writes, "when I received a call from my own former congresswoman, Nancy Pelosi, asking me to add $50 million to the budget for AIDS research." He declined "as politely as I could," but knew that Rep. Pelosi's position on the House Appropriations Committee made her a power to contend with. To read an excerpt in The New Scientist, click here.

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