A Nobel prize can mean many things in a scientific life. Sometimes it is little more than a welcome career boost, with a distracting overhead of invitations and honorary degrees. Some laureates give in to the temptation to pontificate on cabbages and kings, and forgo the right to be taken seriously outside their own field. A few parlay the honour into real political clout, inside science and even in the wider world. One such is US cancer-research virtuoso Harold Varmus.
Now, as one of two co-chairs of President Obama's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, he has a key role in ensuring one of the vital pledges made by the new President is met. With his help, we may hope, the Administration of the world's most powerful nation will again pay attention to actual facts, as far as they can be figured out.
That adds interest to this account of his life, which begins as a conventional scientific autobiography. We follow the young Varmus as he searches for his vocation, studying English until he realises that patients miss their doctors more than students miss their literature professors. A stint at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the left-wing medic's permitted alternative to the Vietnam draft, helped him discover the joys of research. Then followed years of happy lab work, most auspiciously in a 1970s collaboration with Michael Bishop, his University of California, San Francisco colleague with whom he shared his Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1989. Their achievement? They confirmed the suspicion that genes play a major role in the origins of cancers by exposing the working of so-called proto-oncogenes.
This was complex, painstaking work, delving deep into the intricacies of the genome with tools far less subtle than those of 30 years later. Varmus explains it with exemplary clarity and shows how it led to new treatments, for at least some cancers.
It also led to the Nobel, and to political visibility. The liberal, bicycle-riding Varmus was invited by President Bill Clinton to run the colossal research empire of the NIH, which he did from 1993 to 2000. You might say he was a success there, too, as the agency's budget doubled during his tenure - it now stands at a dizzying $29 billion (£19 billion) a year. He takes satisfaction in this, but he emphasises that it depended on lots of other people and generally favourable political winds.
The book then moves on to other political issues, notably science and global health, stem-cell research, and the reform of scientific publishing. As with his days at NIH, there is plenty of interest here, but little impression of the passion that must animate a man who has achieved so much in such different spheres.
Speaking of his cancer gene work with Bishop, Varmus once told Wired magazine: "The research I did with Mike didn't have the manic quality of some scientific discoveries, like the discovery of the double helix." It was, as he put it: "Wagner rather than Mozart - a slow elaboration of themes, sung over and over again." Perhaps that makes it harder to build a dramatic narrative around his discoveries. It does not stop him speaking eloquently about them, as the quote suggests. However, little in the book rises to this level. Although he makes much of his study of English literature, he is a workmanlike writer at best, and a plodding one the rest of the time.
He wrote the book, as he suggests, partly "to transmit some of my own experiences in science and science policy to those who will guide the nation after the election of 2008". One suspects this leads him to be more circumspect than he might be about some of his later political campaigns, particularly the fight to set up open-access publishing in the biomedical sciences.
This campaign, as readers of this magazine will know, entailed taking on journal publishers whose business model involved the obligatory gift of your research results, which they would then sell back to you or to your employer. In any other sphere this would be denounced as a racket: in academe it was known as dissemination. Naturally, the idea of altering this arrangement met fierce opposition from those whose fortunes depended on the old system. But the principle of open access to publicly funded research has now been pretty much established, thanks to agitation by Varmus and his allies, notably the Wellcome Trust in the UK. The whole saga, related in the closing chapter here, would make quite a good book, but that will probably come from a writer prepared to dish more dirt.
Varmus' discretion, though, along with his personal charm, his intellect and his doggedness in pursuit of his goals, will serve him well in helping Obama's Administration rebuild a science-policy apparatus that needs a thorough cleansing after the poor intellectual hygiene practised by his predecessor. At least let's hope so, for all our sakes.
The Art and Politics of Science
By Harold Varmus
W. W. Norton & Company
Published 13 March 2009