P&S Journal: Fall 1994, Vol.14, No.3
Harold Varmus: Nobel Laureate at the NIH
By Peter Wortsman
In a 12-mile trip from his home in downtown Washington, D.C., to his office in Building One on the Bethesda campus of the National Institutes of Health, the new director of the Institutes easily eludes traffic, navigating the Beltway on a racing bike. To Harold Varmus'66, shifting gears is a way of life.
At 54, the limber Nobel Prize-winning bench scientist-turned-biomedical-administrator has covered more territory than most of us can imagine in the course of a single career. "I thought it was time to put scientific perspective in this office," he explains of his decision to accept President Clinton's nomination, confirmed by the Senate last November, "and while I wasn't my own first choice, I thought I would give it a try. For my part, I wanted a change of pace; it has something to do with the biological clock ticking inside me."
Instead of leaving benchwork behind-he now keeps two laboratories running, one at the NIH and one back at the University of California at San Francisco-Harold Varmus has diversified his intellectual portfolio, extending his line of inquiry from genetics to the big picture of science and society.
Evidence of that includes his recent book, "Genes and the Biology of Cancer" (co-authored with Robert Weinberg and published by the Scientific American Library), which is geared to a general readership. That book is the fourth listed on his bibliography, which also lists some 300 scientific papers.
When President Clinton nominated the 1989 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine to lead the largest biomedical research enterprise in the world, he sent a clear message that America is committed to the future of basic scientific research. In the words of Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who helped champion the nomination in the Senate, "Dr. Varmus has the vision and skill to lead this nation's biomedical research into the 21st century."
The NIH, which began as a modest hygienic laboratory in the 1880s, has mushroomed to an $11 billion enterprise. Today encompassing 18 intramural research institutes, the National Library of Medicine (the world's largest repository of medical literature), a clinical center, a new National Center for Genome Research, and an extensive program of funding for extramural research, the NIH directs the cutting edge of medical science. Yet, given the current climate of budgetary constraint and the public clamor for cures to pressing health concerns, such as AIDS and breast cancer, it has been suggested that the NIH "must face some fundamental ambiguities in its mission." (Science, Sept. 24, 1993)
Whether the new director chooses to tinker with or, as The New York Times put it, to "reinvent the organization that is the life blood of the nation's biomedical enterprise," the stage is set for confrontation and discovery.