P&S Journal: Fall 1994, Vol.14, No.3
Harold Varmus: Nobel Laureate at the NIH
A Spokesman for the Scientific Community
Thrust into the spotlight of public acclaim, Dr. Varmus frequently was asked to speak for the scientific community, a role he came to embrace and which eventually brought him to the attention of advisers to the White House. A member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he served as chairman of the Board of Biology for the National Research Council, adviser to the Congressional Caucus for Biomedical Research, and co-chairman of the New Delegation for Biomedical Research. In 1986, he chaired the subcommittee of the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses, which gave the AIDS virus its name, HIV.
An impassioned defender of free-ranging basic research and an outspoken opponent of any imposed "roadmap to major discoveries," Dr. Varmus has, nevertheless, come to recognize the political expediency of "strategic thinking."
"Actually, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski put it very nicely," he says. "She said she knows that science is not a motorboat, you don't just get out on the bay and buzz to the next port. It's more like sailing, you need to know where you're headed, in general, but you have to tack where the wind's opportune. A boat loaded with fuel and waving the banner 'Breast Cancer' will just run aground."
Arguing for the need to accumulate knowledge about the life and death of the cell, he says, "You will either gather so much information that, finally, you can put it all together, or, more likely, somebody will make an outstanding discovery that cuts through to a new insight and may lead to a major new therapy or manner of detection."
Dr. Varmus takes a realistic view of his role at the helm of the NIH: "The best I can do is to help foster a good atmosphere in which to do science."
Among his top priorities is the need to reactivate the educational function of the NIH, which nurtured his own scientific inclinations. He favors a recruitment focus on young investigators. "Our big opportunity, the niche I seek to have the NIH fill in the intramural program, is to bring in the very best young postdoc candidates from the external community, particularly those lacking extensive research experience, and especially M.D.s from the minority population who have been underrepresented in science."
Other priorities include the institution of more rigorous standards for the intramural program and a reform of the often-cumbersome extramural peer review process for grants.
To accomplish all this, Dr. Varmus inevitably will ruffle a few feathers. Some have questioned his abilities to maneuver effectively in Beltway politics, but he sees it differently: "I'm an impatient, fast-talking guy who wouldn't be thought of as your optimal bureaucrat. But I believe you don't have to be a consummate master of protocol, but a person who speaks his mind and has a certain amount of integrity. That's more important in Washington than suavity and unctuousness."
Time will tell if he succeeds, and he has put a limit on that time. He has decided to spend only three to 10 years as director before returning to full-time research.