Off the Cuff: Dr. Varmus, Nobel Prize winner and Director of the National Cancer Institute

Dr. Harold E. Varmus is a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for studies of the genetic basis of cancer. In addition to authoring over 300 scientific papers and five books, Dr. Varmus is director of the National Cancer Institute, was appointed co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology by President Obama and has served as President and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Director of the National Institutes of Health. He spoke with the Review as part of a media interview prior to giving Thursday night’s convocation “Why Science Matters.”

William Passannante, Staff Writer

Do you have any suggestions as to actions undergraduate and graduate institutions can take to strengthen STEM education?

I’m not an expert in this field … but I have been involved in lots of discussions about this and reports. I think the problem is most acute in K–12 education. I would like to see our educational system much more geared to teaching almost everything in the context of evidence-based thinking — teaching kids how to read and to write by thinking about problems that are essentially scientific problems. Maybe natural sciences, maybe social sciences — getting kids to think based on what they observe, what they read, what they’ve experienced and to teach science not as a memory exercise, which is frequently the case. You start biology by learning the body parts and the parts of the cell. That’s a terrible way to learn. You need to know a little bit of that, but everybody is more interested — kids and adults — if you present them with a problem and then think about how you solve the problem. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a class, even in high school, at the edge of what we know and don’t know. By feeling an obligation to give people a tremendous amount of information and vocabulary before they understand the nature of the problems we’re trying to solve is a disincentive to being interested in science. The other really key thing is teachers. We just have not created the incentives in our public school system to have highly trained people teach high school. But in other countries, they do, because they provide adequate salaries. And not just the salaries. It’s also having laboratories and equipment.

What inspired you to make that switch from English to medicine? And where would you and the world be if you hadn’t?

I think the world would probably be in a pretty similar place. Most of the things that I’ve contributed to science, even the best things, would have gotten done eventually. Maybe not quite as quickly, but I was always part of a team effort. This issue of the subtraction test is very interesting. What would the world be like without somebody? And not too many people pass that test in a very rigorous way. Maybe Einstein, but … most people, I think they would have to say that I either accelerated the progress of science by finding something a year or two before it would have been found some other way or they describe the discovery made … in a way that was especially elegant — a really nice way to discover something. And I think that’s true of some of our work too. It’s a trifle immodest, but the way in which we first discovered the genes we now call proto-oncogenes — in retrospect, it was really clever. It looks really nice. It was a good experiment, and it was technically quite elegant. … Within a few years, just brute force would have uncovered the same stuff, but it wouldn’t have been as pretty. There’s an aesthetic to science that’s fairly important. I think the world would be more or less the same place. Maybe people would catch up.

What are your day-to-day activities like as director of the NCI?

I don’t want to give too much away here because people will think I’m lazy, but I have a few principles. I try never to go to meetings I don’t run. I have to go to a few because NCI is part of the [National Institutes of Health], and I have to go to a few meetings that are run by the NIH director, but usually, every meeting I run, so I can, I set the agenda and I say it’s time to break up. Number two, my staff is not allowed to start my day too early — fill out the calendar from the back. I like having the morning to myself so I can ride my bike to work and have a coffee, take it easy, read the paper and get caught up on things. Number three, I never go to meetings to make opening remarks. They can take a lot of time. I don’t meet and greet, I just do things that I think are valuable.

In one sentence, what would you say is the key to being a good administrator?

It’s hard in one sentence. Never say, “We’ve always done it this way.”