Science, Government, and the Public Interest

By Harold Varmus

Harold Varmus
Harold Varmus
The relationship between science and government has not always been as richly textured as it is now. Historically, science, like philosophy and the arts, was generally either pursued as an avocation by the wealthy or financed by wealthy patrons, who might or might not also have political power. More recently, the patron was often one of the new philanthropic foundations. Following the industrial revolution, as commerce learned to use the fruits of science in the 19th and 20th centuries, increasing levels of support also came from the industrial sector, often with the intention of producing something of value to the investor, not necessarily knowledge for the general public.

The extraordinary characteristic of governmental involvement in science is its most prominent purpose: to create knowledge that advances public welfare. To achieve this goal, science and government need to be mutually supportive. In its simplest form, the government pays scientists to make discoveries that lead among other things to practical inventions, economic prosperity, and better health—all of which are in the public interest. The relationship depends on trust between the two parties and allegiance to rules that are often unspoken and not legislated, but worth trying to state here.

To get what it needs and wants from scientists, the government needs to ensure reasonable levels of financial support for scientific work; organize agencies that can deploy the funds in a fair, equitable, and productive fashion; pay attention to the supply of scientific workers; observe sympathetically the physical and functional components of the scientific infrastructure; listen to the advice scientists offer to the government on many issues; and exercise wise oversight—neither careless nor draconian—of the agencies and institutions that spend public money, keeping an eye on priorities, on the distribution and use of scientific findings, and on scientific integrity and fiscal accountability.

In turn, the scientific community needs to honor the government's fiscal commitment. This is achieved by individuals and their institutions through the hard work of doing science; communication of research findings; the education and training of new scientists; the pursuit of useful applications of new knowledge; an enthusiasm for providing non-partisan advice about scientific knowledge that informs policy making; and a willingness to be subjected to competitive review by peers and to administrative and legislative oversight by government.

1. Financing Research
At this time in our history, the vast majority of scientific work performed in academia and government is absolutely dependent on the availability of government funds. It is essential that the national treasury be equipped to sustain the vitality of American science. The darkest cloud on the horizon of the marriage of government and science is the rapidly growing budget deficit—a product of expanding costs of mandatory programs, an expensive war in Iraq, and dramatic reductions in revenues by ill-timed tax cuts. In an amazingly rich country like ours, with an annual gross product of about $10 trillion, it would seem a simple matter to have enough set aside to insure that all the major sciences are growing at the kinds of rates we consider healthy for other components of our economy. This is especially so when leading economists agree that public investments in science have a rate of return unmatched in any other area. But the Federal deficit that now yawns before us threatens essentially all sciences with not just an absence of growth, but possibly a reduction in support over the next several years. It is time to reassert the depth of our relationship and to redefine its fiscal requirements, continuing to reward accomplishment and preserve competition, while providing stability.

2. Immigration Practices
The availability of long term resources for the scientific enterprise is among the factors required to insure a steady supply of new talent for science in the public domain. A second factor is the training environment—the schools and universities and lab-based programs that we use to interest students in science and to teach them to become good scientists. We continue to do a good job in biology and computer science, but we don't do so well in engineering, physics, and mathematics. And test scores show that we are mediocre in teaching the scientifically ungifted or the disinclined, those who eventually become the general public.

The third factor is our capacity to attract talented and ambitious young scientists from abroad. Enlightened immigration is a long-standing source of both pride and outstanding scientists. (Bruce Alberts reported in his annual Presidential Address to the NAS this year that fully a quarter of current members of the NAS were born abroad.) But there are signs that practices affecting visas for students and scientific visitors have recently veered out of balance. The GAO reported last year that the average time for issuing visas is longer than two months, although the State Department has claimed that visa delays have been reduced recently in response to such complaints. Still, students and postdoctoral fellows report treatment that is annoying, insulting, and humiliating. One possible consequence is described in a recent report from the Council of Graduate Schools: a decline this year of about one-third in applications for graduate training, especially from China, Korea, India and several other countries.

Certainly, the scientific community has a responsibility to recognize legitimate concerns about terrorism; they will and should have an effect on procedures and policies that govern travel and immigration. But the government must formulate a reasonable defense; fears of terrorism must not be allowed to erode our ability to attract talent to our shores.

3. Independence of Peer Review
The contract between government and science has worked well in the US in large part because the scientific community has made an enormous commitment to police the quality of grants that are awarded and papers that are published in leading journals through expert peer review. We in the scientific community assume that the near-sanctity of peer review is widely accepted. But peer review is fragile. Two things threaten it. One is a decline in funding that can lower success rates to the point at which the review mechanism cannot make credible decisions between what should and should not be supported. In this situation, review criteria are corrupted—innovation gives way to mere feasibility—and older established scientists are given opportunities that belong to younger untested ones.

The other threat is more immediate and more distressing: an effort to undermine peer review through poorly informed political action. On July 11, 2003, Rep. Toomey of Pennsylvania rose on the floor of the House of Representatives to propose an unusual amendment to the NIH spending bill: four NIH grants would be stripped of their funds because he had determined from the abstracts that they were inappropriate for funding. Fortunately, the allies of science came to our aid, and the Toomey Amendment was defeated—but by a mere two votes.

This worrisome episode tells us that there is a festering wound in the relationship of science and government. We as scientists and the science agencies need to describe our review processes with greater clarity and in wider venues to insure an appreciation of them.

4. Separating Religion and Science
The quality of science in the US depends substantially on our history as a basically secular country. Yet, ironically, as recent immigration trends have made our country much more diverse culturally, ethnically, and spiritually, we have not become more securely secular. Instead, an increasingly dogmatic faith-based element has invaded government and politics, undermining the evidence—based approaches to problems that most scientists would like their governments to use. In crucial situations, this can produce important mistakes with disastrous consequences—even well beyond the usual confines of science, as in trying to find "weapons of mass destruction" that we know must exist in "evil" countries, rather than looking for evidence that they do.

Arguments based on the contention that spending tax dollars to do certain research might offend the sensibilities or beliefs of taxpayers, threaten to replace another kind of moral argument based on the idea that spending tax dollars to do certain research might produce benefits, especially health benefits, for many diverse people in our complex society.

Consider two examples:The strong tilt in this Administration towards abstinence programs and away from more realistic programs that use contraceptive devises, like condoms, to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted agents, here and even abroad. And, second, the policies that now govern stem cell and human embryo research, that give heavy weight to the moral rights of a tiny cluster of undifferentiated cells at the expense of full fledged adult citizens who could benefit from such research. These policies are now driving most of this work to the private sector, to a few wealthy non-profit institutions, and, most troubling for our nation's future in science, to new players like South Korea or to our traditional competitors like Great Britain.

This is not an argument to deny ethical considerations their role in deciding how to conduct government-supported science. But this role needs to be exercised in the context of a balanced, non-doctrinaire approach in which the ethical consequences of research are also fully considered for application in an increasingly pluralistic society.

5. Globalizing Science
The US government generally understands its role as the major supporter of the scientific work that benefits our citizens and our economy. But it has been slower to understand the global impact of the public goods that science generates and the beneficial effects of US support for science in other countries, including the poorest countries. We now achieve our best effects internationally by training foreigners who return home and also by permitting widespread use of knowledge that we produce here and place in the public domain. But I envision a much more extensive program with more expansive goals. I believe that we can "globalize science" in a way that builds sounder societies, links scientific communities, and produces knowledge with regional or national, as well as world-wide, importance.

My enthusiasm for building science in the developing world is based on several things—the belief that science can improve lives in those countries; the fact that the opportunities to become a scientist are severely limited there; the desire to counter the damage we are doing to our international reputation for beneficent leadership by our actions in Iraq and elsewhere; and the experience of seeing American dollars for science at work in one of the poorest places in the world, Bamako, Mali. There, efforts by USAID and NIAID have created a strong Center for Malaria Research and Training that is a source of local health improvements, recruitments of Malians to medical science, national pride, and internationally respected science. We need more Bamako's.

6. Disseminating Scientific Knowledge
Our government is spending billions of the public's tax dollars to generate knowledge meant to be public goods. Yet the scientific community has not done as much as is now possible to optimize the dissemination, storage, retrieval, and use of that knowledge. The government has an obvious vested interest, on behalf of its citizens, to see this happen. But too it has not yet moved vigorously to encourage the use of its own technology—the Internet—to make the work it pays for immediately and freely available to everyone, everywhere, stored in and retrieved from digital libraries. This dream of freely accessible public knowledge has been around for a long time, long before the digital age. In 1836, the head of the British Library said: "I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom." We now have the technical tools to make this vision a reality. [Ed. note: Information about open access publication in biology and medicine can be found at].

Since the end of World War II, the US government has forged a remarkable partnership with the US scientific community. This is both the best and worst of times for this partnership. We continue to lead the world in scientific discovery, our research universities are still unmatched in other countries, new findings and new technologies are bringing different disciplines to intersect in unexpected ways, and public interest in science continues to grow.

Still, we have a great deal to worry about. Enlarging budget deficits threaten to constrict future budgets for science, immigration policies and practices may deflect new talent to other countries, and inappropriate attacks on peer review and a failure to separate religion from science can undermine the delicate balance between scientific independence and governmental oversight. And we may not be moving fast enough to promote science and its uses in the developing world, and to provide open access to scientific findings through the Internet. Effective collaboration between science and government seems to me one of the few rational ways to find our path in a largely irrational and increasingly dangerous world. I hope that an accounting of these concerns can ultimately help to strengthen our traditional relationship.

Harold Varmus is president and chief executive officer of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and former director of the National Institutes of Health. This article is adapted from his Carey Lecture, delivered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy Meeting on April 22, 2004. The full text of his speech can be found at

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

June 2004 (Volume 13, Number 6)

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Articles in this Issue
International Physics Community Joins Forces for 2005 World Conference in South Africa
Innovation Task Force Unveils New Advocacy Campaign
APS Council Approves Statements on Subordinates and on Referencing
APS Council Honors George Pake
Integral Looks at the Cosmos Through Gamma Glasses
QuarkNet Brings Research Experience to the Hight School Classroom
Laser Science, Quantum Optics Featured at 2004 CLEO/IQEC Conference
Senators Sign Letter Calling for More DOE Funding
Closing In on The Mysterious Dark Matter?
APS, AAPT Appoint Joint Task Force on Graduate Education
Two-Day Los Alamos Event to Honor Oppenheimer
Butterflies, Tornadoes, and Time Travel
The Back Page
Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis
Readers Bash Beltway Column
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Ask the Ethicist