After graduating from Amherst College in 1961, where he was editor of the college newspaper, Harold Varmus spent a year in an English literature graduate program at Harvard University before switching to Columbia University's medical school. As a faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco, he shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Medicine with J. Michael Bishop for their studies of retroviruses and the genetic basis of cancer. Now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Varmus shares his opinions on medical research and global health in his new book, The Art and Politics of Science.
HHMI: FOR SEVERAL YEARS YOU HAVE BEEN PROMOTING AN IDEA FOR A GLOBAL SCIENCE CORPS, IN WHICH SCIENTISTS WOULD SPEND SEVERAL YEARS DOING RESEARCH IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES. WHAT ARE THE PROSPECTS FOR THE IDEA?
HV: The Global Science Corps would be for scientists at all different stages of life, from people who have just trained and are not sure what they want to do with themselves to scientists at the end of their careers. One of the problems any scientist has in life is learning to think about new problems. Most of us don't take sabbaticals, and when we do we often continue to work on the same problem we've been working on at home. Going to a developing country and learning about a truly new problem and readjusting goals is a very healthy thing to do.
There's a huge untapped reservoir of talent in this country, including people who are in their 60s and 70s and maybe 80s who can really contribute. Instead of retiring, they may choose to do something like J.B.S. Haldane did when he went to India and worked in a genetics institute for seven or eight years until he contracted cancer. He was a tremendous force traveling around India giving lectures and working with students. No one cared that he was in his 70s.
This kind of activity is not cheap. It costs a couple of hundred thousand dollars per year per person if you're going to get high-quality scientists going abroad and feeling secure. It's not a tremendous amount of money, but in these days it's very difficult to get foundations and government agencies to pony up for new programs. But there's no doubt that many countries and many institutions would welcome having such visitors.
HHMI: YOU HAVE ALSO BEEN A PROPONENT OF OPEN-ACCESS PUBLISHING, AND A FOUNDING MEMBER OF PUBLIC LIBRARY OF SCIENCE (PLOS). HAVE YOU DEVELOPED A BUSINESS MODEL THAT CAN SUCCEED IN THE LONG TERM?
HV: People have been waiting for two things with regard to open-access publishing. One is validation of the notion that an open-access journal can be a high-impact, prestigious journal. While they haven't overtaken Nature or Science, the journals at the Public Library of Science (PLoS) have become highly credible venues for publishing. The second thing is demonstrating that the open-access model can be self-sustaining; in this calendar year, we believe that PLoS as a whole will reach that threshold.
We have been criticized because we have used philanthropic funds. Well, show me a startup that has not had some kind of external funding. We did get this going with philanthropy, and we're grateful to our funders and not embarrassed by it. But we're definitely on track to break even, and that will be a pivotal moment in the history of PLoS and open-access publishing in general.