Varmus urges activism through science

Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus explained how science is crucial to a developing country’s success.
Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus explained how science is crucial to a developing country’s success.

On Monday night, Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and president of the Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center, introduced the College community to his ideas concerning science and health and its role in the developing world. Varmus delivered his speech, titled “Health and Science in the Developing World,” to a large audience in Brooks-Rogers. The lecture, which served as the annual Weiss Lecture on Medicine and Medical Ethics, focused largely on “how science and medicine can do more to alleviate conditions under which people live in the developing world,” Varmus said.

Michael Brown, professor of anthropology, introduced Varmus by sharing brief pieces of information about his life and career. Varmus began his lecture by describing how he became interested in medicine, detailing his moment of epiphany that occurred at a gathering of Nobel laureates ten years ago, where he and other laureates were asked to reflect on what the accomplishments of Nobel Prize recipients had done for mankind.

Pointing out two very important prizes, those awarded to the scientists who discovered treatments for malaria and tuberculosis, he noted that these diseases’ continued prevalence in many regions made him realize how important science and medicine are for the developing world. However, he went on to qualify this statement. “Science is not going to solve all problems [and] will not solve any if we don’t change basic rules of life, standard of living and bring people out of poverty,” he said.

Varmus then delineated his speech into four sections: how he became interested in this issue, why he believes it is important, how it can be carried out and good practices that can successfully accomplish the goal of scientific dispersion throughout the world.

In his first section, Varmus took the audience on a journey through his life and career. He began with a brief description of his parents, who both believed in public service, and then of his time at Columbia University, where he was first introduced to public health. The majority of this part of his talk focused on his time at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It was there that he became involved, along with many of his colleagues, in initiatives to promote science in Africa. Varmus described a trip he took to Mali, where he visited a USAID-funded center that trained entomologists on how to treat malaria and how to set up health clinics even in the most rural areas of the country. “This fairly brief visit had a big impact on me; even a very poor country, if it gets the resources, can do the research and develop the science to cure [malaria],” Varmus said.

To answer the question of why powerful and resource-filled countries like the U.S. should invest in promoting science throughout the world, Varmus provided two reasons. The first was altruism.

He emphasized the American way of helping those in need and garnering support throughout the world from those people who we help. “We are recognizing that many of the problems are not local but manifest themselves everywhere [and] we ought to be using all the world’s talent to solve its problems,” Varmus said.

His second reason was aimed towards the cynics, he said. He proceeded to list all the advantages the U.S. would gain through promoting science, thus making self-interest his second reason for action. He described the economic and diplomatic advantages to having friendly relations abroad in the field of science and technology.

Varmus then took the opportunity to describe two of his sources of inspiration: Ismail Serageldin, the chief librarian of the Alexandrian Library in Egypt, and President Barack Obama. Varmus highly regarded Seregeldin for his moving literature on science and technology in the developing world. It was while talking about Obama, however, that the hope Varmus has for the future of his pursuits in science clearly shined through. Varmus praised Obama for his June 4 speech in Cairo, in which he promised a strong effort to reach out to the countries of the Middle East and to support them in their scientific endeavors. Varmus described this act as “reflective of the level of altruism that we need in this country,” he said.

Varmus then provided five basic steps that he believes are crucial for successfully establishing science in a developing country: education and training, access to knowledge, physical infrastructure, operating funds and collaboration. He also emphasized the importance of sustainability in bringing science to the developing world.

In order to carry out these efforts, he offered four models in which he has been involved. The first was his work with the Gates Foundation to promote collaborative science. The result, Global Challenges, is a grant-sponsored research effort that aims to “identify critical scientific challenges in global health and encourage creative research in diseases in the developing world,” he said.

The second effort he described was the Millennium Science Initiative, the aim of which is to build training centers for scientific research, specifically in South America. Varmus then described the need to get scientists from these countries to do the research themselves.

He used the Cyprus Institute as a prime example of an institute available to train scientists of the developing world due to its “centrality of location in between countries that are deprived of qualified scientists,” he said.

Finally, he described his efforts to build a global science corps. “The corps would be made up of a range of scientists, young and old and from economically advanced countries, who would spend one to two years in a developing country to aid in the growth of science,” he said.

Varmus ended his lecture with a call to action. “Become an advocate, encourage institutional action, support government investment and get involved,” he said.

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