Harold Varmus and the politics of science and society 31/10/15

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed/Dhaka Lit Fest DLF 31 October 2015

A paradox of modern life is that, while science and technology become ever more integral to people’s lives, scientists themselves often still lag behind in battles for public attention.

In part, this is a by-product of the scientific method’s intrinsic desire for objectivity and evidence. The public, and scientists themselves, naturally expect science to be neutral and above the affray of mere politics.

This does not mean of course that the scientific community stays out of major global debates, such as on climate change and global warming. Or that there is not a huge public appetite for appreciating the wonders of science in nature documentaries or as expressed in novels and films. It is also true that the lives and ideas of leading scientists such as Stephen Hawking and the achievements and ambitions of institutions like CERN and NASA stimulate enormous worldwide interest.

However, these tend to be exceptions to a norm which often marginalises scientists from public and political debates.

An attractive feature of the Dhaka Lit Festival over the past four years has been its consistent inclusion of seminars and talks relating to all aspects of science. This reflects a growing appetite for communication on science which, in recent years, has seen popular non-scientist authors like Bill Bryson pen international best sellers on scientific innovation.

One of the many highlights to look forward to at this year’s DLF in November will be a talk by the US scientist and author Harold E Varmus who received the Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer in 1989.

In the more than two decades since, Varmus has played a highly active role in civic life, often placing himself at the forefront of controversial political debates about government funding for science. As a graduate of English literature before moving on to medicine, he has also written widely and perceptively on the interactions between art, science and society, most notably in his memoir, The Art and Politics of Science.

Varmus’s activism in public affairs and his  multiple career path make him stand out from most other distinguished scientists. His reflections on art and science are interesting in the light of the ‘Two Cultures’ divergence  articulated by the British scientist and novelist CP Snow in his influential 1959 lecture.

Snow’s thesis highlighted the idea that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” has split into the eponymous two cultures of the humanities and the sciences. He bemoaned this because he foresaw trends (within Britain specifically) to favour the humanities at the expense of scientific and engineering education, meaning that elites in administration, industry and politics were inexorably becoming ever more divorced from appreciating the importance and value of science. Most memorably, he was scathing about influential persons who were well versed in high literature but had “not a glimmer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.”

Arguably, as science has become more specialised and difficult for laypersons to follow, and elites globally have become more dominated by the short termist considerations of financial capitalism, the Two Cultures split is more acute as ever.

It is more important then for scientists to play a bigger role in public debate, especially on funding issues.

Much of the prevailing narrative about new technologies, in the communications sphere for instance, focuses on the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists of California’s Silicon Valley. While their free-market enterprise deserves acknowledgment, what is often left unsaid is that the United States’ decades long dominance of IT innovation and advances in computing is built on the bedrock of public funding for its military-industrial complex and moon landings,  which helped bring forth the scientific advances of today’s global village.

Similarly, the United Kingdom’s strong pharmaceutical sector has only gained from its government funding of public healthcare and university research.

While the funding of science undoubtedly matters to everyone, it is often considered a risky choice for business and politicians alike as both groups are keen to be seen controlling expenditure. After all, Big Science and the costly research it requires into new areas of fundamental knowledge is inherently unquantifiable.

Yet, it is also often the case that it is precisely the most seemingly ratified research that ultimately leads to new technologies which benefit humanity.

The world clearly needs new innovations in energy, industry, agriculture and medicine to deal with the pressing challenges of climate change and healthcare for a growing population in need of better living standards.

Getting the right levels of funding for such research, and overcoming the traps of turf wars reducing scientific collaboration or businesses focusing only on research with the maximum short term benefits, is inevitably a matter of politics.

It obviously matters if past research on climate issues may have been skewed by funding from fossil fuel companies, or if US politicians hinder support on stem cells by conflating it with opposition to abortion, or if  agricultural companies steer development of GMOs to create new monopolies in seeds and inputs.

As former President Clinton’s director of the National Institutes of Health from 1993 to 1999, and current co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Harold Varmus has  regularly engaged with such debates, while consistently championing the case for a bipartisan approach to increasing science funding.

In his many books and public utterances, he has vigorously defended the role of scientists in society, and called for better ways of connecting science and politics for the common good, including the idea of creating a global “science corps.”

As Chair of the Scientific Board of the Gates Foundation work on global health, he is actively looking for new ways to channel funding into global initiatives to combat endemic healthcare challenges and malaria.

Harold Varmus’s unique perspective on these and other scientific issues will doubtless provide many insights and food for thought for his audience at DLF.

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