We draw your attention to an excerpt from the upcoming memoirs of Harold Varmus, The Art and Politics of Science, (Norton Books, Feb. 2009).  Dr.  Varmus served as the director of the National Institutes of Health from 1993 to 1999, and is now president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.  Dr. Varmus was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989 with J. Michael Bishop for discovering that retroviral oncogenes had a cellular origin. In this excerpt Dr. Varmus discusses the difficulties involved in  setting research priorities. In particular he discusses the disadvantages of designating particular dollar amounts for disease-specific research.  He explains that discoveries in science are often quite serendipitous and that breakthroughs in one area turn out to have unexpected benefits in often unrelated disciplines.

We have a very clear example of this in Rett Syndrome. Pre-1999 no Rett-focused organization would have entertained the notion of providing support to Adrian Bird who was studying methylation.  However, Huda Zoghbi’s discovery a decade ago that Rett Syndrome is caused by mutations in MECP2 put Adrian Bird front and center in the Rett field. He had discovered the MeCP2 protein in the early 1990’s and for years no one knew that “his” protein is responsible for multiple neurological diseases when mutated. There are countless prime examples of the importance of funding high quality basic science regardless of any potential disease orientation.  As the  new administration assumes power it is imperative that increased funding for NIH be a part of reestablishing the economic, intellectual and scientific strengths of this country.


One of the most difficult aspects of the job of running the NIH, or of directing any individual institute, is the designation of research priorities. This is an emotionally and politically sensitive part of the job because it is closely watched by some of NIH’s strongest supporters, who often advocate for the NIH because of a passionate interest in a small fraction of what the NIH does. That fraction is almost always a specific disease or even a subset or facet of that disease.

Shifts in funds assigned to the mechanisms for supporting research, such as the intramural versus the external grant programs, or differential growth of budgets for individual institutes, are often easier to absorb than changes that affect the dollars devoted to specific diseases. Directives to alter allocations for disease-oriented programs are especially problematic if they occur abruptly or come at the expense of research on another disease. The situation may be further complicated if the directives are demands from powerful people rather than consensual decisions.

To read the excerpt in its entirety please visit The Scientist website. (free registration may be required)