Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming to this what I know is going to prove to be a most stimulating 90 minutes. I'm very pleased that we could all be together at the Atkinson forum in American studies. I especially want to offer a first welcome to our special guest, Dr. Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate, former director of the National Institutes of Health, and currently president and CEO of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, who also serves as a leader of Cornell's external advisory council for the new Life Sciences Initiative.
Before I introduce Dr. Varmus and begin the afternoon, I want to recognize first of all president emeritus Hunter Rawlings and Elizabeth Rawlings, who became friends with the Varmuses while Dr. Varmus's son was a student at the University of Iowa, and who are with us today. The Rawlings.
I also, of course, want to thank and recognize David and Pat Atkinson, who since 2002 have sponsored this forum in order to enrich Cornell's curriculum in American studies and enhance the cultural life of the entire university. David and Pat, would you please, if you don't mind, stand so that we can recognize your generosity and foresight?
Reflecting the broad, broad scope of the American studies program at Cornell, the Atkinson forum, with support from David and Pat, has brought thinkers, actors, musicians, writers, dancers, and artists to the campus over the years. This year marks the first time the program has featured a scientist, and we are honored that Dr. Varmus, one of America's most accomplished and insightful scientists, could be with us for this eighth Atkinson forum.
The forum is being taped for broadcast on WEOS FM at 7:00 PM next Monday, May 7, as part of our Higher Education in the Round series. It will also be available on the web at cornell.edu. I'm pleased that the live performance includes nearly 100 K-12 teachers, as well as students and other special guests. After Dr. Varmus's lecture, he and I will spend about a half hour with you discussing the issues he raises, and we'll have plenty of time, probably more than a half hour, for Q&A.
A native of Freeport, Long Island, Harold Varmus is the son of a general medical practitioner and a psychiatric social worker. Despite his family's background in medicine and science, and despite a scientific career that has produced over 300 scientific papers and four books, Dr. Varmus in fact started out as an English major at Amherst and went on to earn a master's degree in English at Harvard. His interest in medicine and science began during his days at Harvard, when he would sometimes accompany friends on rounds at Harvard Medical School.
He completed his own medical training at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and then went on to become a public health service officer at the National Institutes of Health, studying bacterial gene expression. After postdoctoral work at the University of California, San Francisco, he joined the faculty there. It was at UCSF that Dr. Varmus began a very productive relationship with Dr. Michael Bishop. During the 1970s, their research produced a string of findings that changed how we approach the study of cancer. Their work established that cancer-causing oncogenes were necessary parts of a cell's genetic structure that had undergone an accumulation of subtle changes, either through random error during cell division or through exposure to mutating agents, such as radiation or cigarette smoke.
For their discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes, Dr. Varmus and Dr. Bishop were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1989. In 1993, President Clinton appointed Dr. Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, at a time when the agency was beset by political strife and severe budget challenges. During his six-year tenure at the helm of NIH, Dr. Varmus restored the emphasis on scientific professionalism within the agency, won large increases in the budgets for biomedical research, recruited new leaders from the scientific community, and planned three major new facilities. Dr. Varmus also used his position to become a highly effective and vocal advocate for basic scientific research.
As president and CEO of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center since 2000, Dr. Varmus has emphasized opportunities to harness recent advances in the biological sciences to improve the care of cancer patients. Under his leadership, Memorial Sloan Kettering has reorganized and enlarged its scientific programs, constructed impressive new research and clinical facilities, established new graduate training programs, and become a partner with Rockefeller University and Cornell University in the Tri-Institutional Initiative.
In addition to his work at Sloan Kettering, Dr. Varmus serves as chair of the Board of the Public Library of Science and the Scientific Board of Grand Challenges in Global Health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is also engaged in numerous initiatives aimed at promoting science in the developing world. Dr. Varmus's topic today is the future of science in America, and we are most honored that he is sharing the afternoon with us at this Atkinson forum. Dr. Varmus.
Well first a few thanks to the Atkinsons for making this afternoon possible, to David Skorton, my new friend, for such a generous introduction, to Hunter and Elizabeth for longstanding friendship and bird watching together, and to Kurt Gottfried who made the invitation in the first place and then drove all the way to Syracuse to pick me up for my flight to Ithaca, characteristically I may say, I didn't fly on time.
Now my purpose this afternoon is threefold. First to remind you of the importance of science in our culture. Next and most extensively, to alert you to diverse threats to American science that pervade our culture at present, ironically at a time when both the strength of American science and its potential to serve society in many ways here in and abroad are so great. And then finally to discuss some of the underlying reasons for current unease. And I'll do that in the hopes that we can reverse them.
My message, though, is not apocalyptic. I believe there are many ways in which we can turn back some of these threats and realize the potential of science in America and everywhere else. But that's only going to happen if we have a clearer sense of the problems at hand and have a dedicated pursuit of the solutions.
I want to begin by recognizing the power of science to shape and pervade our lives. And that recognition is not new. It can be seen in classical times or in the Renaissance. For example, an essay written in 1620, Sir Francis Bacon said "printing, gunpowder, and the magnet have changed the whole face and the state of things throughout the world. No empire, no sect, no star seems to be exerted greater power and influence in human affairs."
Jump ahead a couple of centuries, and this university was founded by New York state visionaries, as were Cornell and Andrew White, who understood that teaching science and technology in addition to the humanities and arts in the forms of agriculture and the mechanical arts was essential to economic and social progress. But science and technology made history and transformed society most dramatically in the century we've just concluded, the 20th century. Of singular importance, the Second World War was won with radar and anti-malarial drugs, as well as with new weaponry. And these discoveries and technological advances were among the things that stimulated the great growth of federal spending on science when Vannevar Bush talked about the endless frontier, and the government got behind the idea of building science agencies that are now in some cases in trouble.
Thanks also to 20th century science, we have a much deeper understanding of the world in which we live. The composition of matter at the atomic level is better understood. The size and shape and the age of the universe, the chemical makeup of cells, their biochemical signals, and the information that's encoded in our chromosomes. Even the daily conduct of our lives has been changed by new technologies in ways that most people who use these don't appreciate. For travel, cars and airplanes. For communications, television and cellphones. For storage, the use and transmission of information through computational sciences and the internet. For energy production and for guided weapons, for agriculture and medicine. Advances in medicine, my own field, have been particularly notable, extending life expectancy for about 30 years, preventing and treating infectious diseases, reducing death rates from vascular diseases of the brain and heart by 2/3, improving treatment of some cancers and preventing others, and in general better controlling mental illness, arthritis, and another chronic diseases.
At the start of this new century, science continues to be exhilarating. For example, in my own field of cancer research, these are truly extraordinary times. By learning the precise genetic damage that drives a normal cell to become a cancer cell, we can now classify cancers more accurately, and for a few important conditions, treat them more effectively. My own institution, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, is not alone among the great science institutions of this country in showing enthusiasm for what we do by building new research facilities, devising new programs, and training more people to study diseases and basic facts of biology.
Now for many of us in the sciences, our enterprise seems not only the source of discovery and technical novelty now, but also a necessity. A necessity if we're going to confront effectively many troubling features of the modern world, including, I have to say, many that science and technology have helped to create. So we as a global community, not simply as a nation, will need science, and for many reasons. We'll need science to understand and reduce human contributions to climate change. We need science to find new sources of energy, to reduce and reverse environmental degradation, to improve the health care we provide to an aging population, and to conquer many unsolved medical problems. Even more especially, in the poorer parts of the world, we'll need to produce more food, to allocate and purify water more effectively, and to find new means for economic growth. And I don't know how we'll do these things and others without great scientific strength here and abroad.
Now, if we're going to use science and benefit from it in the future, what's required for science to thrive in this country and elsewhere? I see at least three large categories of the environment in which science operates that we'll need to think about. First, we need science education and training to operate at a high level, to attract and make new scientists and to enhance public understanding of science. Secondly, we're going to need government support of and respect for science. We need government at the moment to pay for science in a responsible fashion, and we need a government that works with scientists so the decision making by government is properly informed by the best scientific information available. And finally we need an appropriate cultural setting, conditions that are conducive to scientific progress, including a peaceful collaborative world and nations in which dogmas, be they political or religious, are divorced from science.
So how are we doing in these regards, and how are we doing elsewhere with respect to fulfilling some of these criteria? So despite some of the successes of the past century, and despite optimism about what science can achieve in the next, science seems to be under attack on several fronts, especially in the US, but also in other advanced economies.
Scientists report anxiety about their career prospects and a sense of alienation from the dominant culture and politics of our society. Now anxiety and alienation are not new in science, but they are perceived as more acute and more intense now than in recent memory. And they are driven by many things. By an under appreciation of science as an essential feature of our culture, by declining budgets for science, and by sharpened conflicts with religion in policies that affect both education and science policy.
So let me now turn to a higher level of specificity, beginning with education. Although the US continues to produce some of the world's most outstanding young scientists, we do this in general by a highly selective method. We pick and encourage the most highly talented students. We then send them to magnet schools or put them into advanced classes. We award prizes to them at science fairs, and then we train them in laboratories in our great universities like Cornell. Of course, there's nothing wrong with this. This is great. But at the same time, we fail to produce as many engineers and technically proficient people as our economy needs. Overall, our students score among the lowest from developed countries in standardized science tests. And the integrity of the scientific curriculum has been threatened.
The main reasons for these failures are clear to every commission that has studied them. As a nation, we simply don't care enough about education. We underpay teachers shamelessly. We allow schools to decay physically. We honor athletics more than scholarship. And we don't generally worry about the public's understanding of science, as long as we win wars and Nobel prizes.
Over the past few years, an additional factor has emerged-- efforts by components of the religious right to undermine the teaching of evolution, and thus necessarily the teaching of biology in science classes. These efforts have been led by proponents of creationism using the pretentious and misleading label intelligent design, or ID. Proponents of ID try to discredit Darwinism with arguments that few among scientists would accept.
For example, by pointing to human eyes or bacterial flagella as examples of what they call irreducible complexity, and claiming that because we can't fully account for every step in their development, they must be the product of a supernatural force. This, of course, is religion, not science. And as a few of our university leaders have boldly stated, ID poses no testable hypotheses, does no experiments, publishes no papers. It doesn't belong in science classrooms.
Now this position, taken by several of our leaders and by many in the scientific community, has received some reassuring public support last year from the voters of Dover, Pennsylvania. They replaced the local school board, which had tried to present ID in biology classes, with new members pledged to keep science separate from religion. Then a heroic Republican judge, John Jones, issued a ruling against the proponents of ID that included ringing phrases, such as "ID presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory and directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resource."
But these battles are far from over. Other efforts to undermine instruction in evolution, and hence in biology, the governing principle for all of modern biology, are ongoing in many of our states. Polls by the Pew Trust indicate that as many as 38% of Americans would like to see creationism replace evolution, not simply coexist with it, as President Bush has wrongly proposed, in the high school curriculum. Not surprisingly, this number is consistent with a large fraction of Americans who do not subscribe to evolution, the largest percentage of citizens among the top 34 economies, excepting only Turkey.
Let's turn to government support. The United States still leads the nations in total support for science. And it remains among the top few when science funding is measured as a fraction of our gross national product. But budget projections for most science agencies are flat, without even inflationary increases, causing a gradual loss of purchasing power at a time when the promise of science and the need for science are unprecedented, and the loss of opportunity is extraordinary.
The consequences of this budget flattening for science and for our nation are disheartening. For example, leadership of elementary particle physics research, a field that we as a nation once dominated, is now at best shared with the European physicists who are hosting the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the next major discoveries are likely to make after the collider opens this year. And it is still uncertain whether the US will be able to lead in the development of the next major facility, the International Linear Collider. If it does not, that will be a heavy blow for physics in the US.
Even in biomedical research where the public as shown its most enthusiastic support, we are in trouble. To its credit, the Bush administration did fulfill its pledge to finish a five-year doubling of the NIH budget began in the Clinton era. And the NIH now has the biggest budget among the federal science agencies, about $28 billion a year. But for the past four years, and if the President's budget proposal for next year prevails, the NIH budget will have not kept up with inflation, with no significant change in actual dollars and a very substantial change when adjusted for constant dollars. And this, of course, occurring at a time when the opportunities in medical research are so enormous.
As a result of this loss of buying power, only few smaller grants can be awarded at a time when the number of active investigators has grown significantly. This means that the success rates for grant applicants will be low, as low as 10% to 20% in different fields, and especially low for new applicants, such as those who have finally taken faculty positions after many years of undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral training. Such stiff competition produces poor or arbitrary decisions on study sections and other review groups, and it demoralizes the frustrated applicants and the reviewers alike. It should also worry the public that's paid for much of the training of new investigators and wants them to be working in the laboratory, not rewriting grant applications.
Although many excellent students are training in the sciences in the US, Cornell, and elsewhere, the budget forecasts do transmit a discouraging message to prospective scientists. In addition, for several years American undergraduates have been steering away from certain fields, such as math, engineering, and some of the physical sciences. And the foreign students who might have taken their places have been applying to our graduate schools in modestly smaller numbers for the past few years. Together these trends could dramatically reduce our ability to mount the scientific effort that the new century requires.
At the same time, the federal government has signaled its lack of respect for science in other ways. It has undermined the traditional relationship between those who provide scientific information to government and those who make policy. And it's made policy itself that flies in the face of views widely held by scientists.
Many scientists and citizens were first alerted to a pattern of government disrespect for science in February of 2004. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization of scientists and citizens led by your own Kurt Gottfried, provided an itemized summary of several disturbing actions taken by the Bush administration during its first term. A central theme emerged from this report. There was a general disregard for the principles that have historically characterized the advisory role that the scientific community has played in virtually all administrations, Republican or Democrat, for five decades.
Normally the government seeks unadulterated opinions from a broad spectrum of scientists. It then evaluates those opinions as objectively as possible and makes policy in the context of economic and political contingencies, while also respecting consensus views of scientists. As this report from the UCS documented, and as journalists and the UCS itself have continued to report, the Bush administration has subjected potential advisers to inappropriate tests of political preference. It has edited scientific reports with prejudice before they were read by policymakers.
It's limited the freedom of government scientists, scientists employed by government agencies, to voice their opinions on scientific questions that might have policy implications. It's appointed individuals with questionable expertise to advisory groups or to responsible posts in science agencies. It's reduced the status of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the office within the White House that advises the president, and it has frequently formulated policies that run counter to deeply held views of scientists and has run counter to public welfare.
These practices have changed the traditional interactions of scientists and government across a broad spectrum of topics of immense public concern, especially energy, climate change, the environment, and health. Fortunately the revelations have been widely reported in the press, and legislation intended to reduce some of the illegitimate practices has been proposed by members of Congress, including Representative Henry Waxman, Senator Dick Durbin, and others. For instance, Henry Waxman introduced a bill to defend government scientists against reprisal when they blow the whistle on these practices. And this bill has been passed by the House by a healthy margin and I'm told will be voted on in the Senate today or very soon.
But still, despite all this publicity in the press, despite constructive actions by Congress, inappropriate practices persist. Over the last few months, I've collected a number of articles in the press that document ways in which these practices do persist and affect a large number of prominent agencies. For example, the New York Times of March 29 of this year, the Inspector General reported that a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Julie McDonald, violated federal rules by sending internal agency documents to industry lobbyists. She also advocated industry views. For example, she recommended combining three types of California tiger salamanders so that they would be removed individually from the list of endangered species.
In the New York Times Magazine interview by Deborah Solomon on March 9, NASA's Drew Shindell, an employee of NASA, described how his reports were watered down before release. And I quote Dr. Shindell, "When I issued a report predicting rapid warming in Antarctica, the press release ended up highlighting an effect that Antarctica has a climate." in a New Yorker article that I'll quote again from in a moment in 2006, Philip Cooney, the Environmental Protection Agency official from the oil industry, altered government climate reports to mitigate any claims that man-made emissions were linked to global warming.
In the New York Times of March 31, there was a report from the Institute of Medicine which criticized the president's emergency plan for AIDS relief, an otherwise valuable program, because it requires that one third of AIDS prevention funds support abstinence and fidelity, even in countries where transmission of HIV is mainly through drug use. In a New York Times editorial of April 12 of this year, on the occasion of the dismissal of a man named Dr. Eric Keroack, the director of Family Planning at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Times commented that the hiring of this gentleman was initially a sacrifice of science to ideology. According to the Washington Post, Dr. Keroack is known to promote abstinence, to oppose contraception, to claim that sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry so that relationships are difficult to establish, an idea which has not yet been fully established by the scientific community.
Now, as much more widely reported-- and I don't want to cite any single periodical here-- for over a year, the Food and Drug Administration continued to reject overwhelming recommendations by its own advisory groups for the approval of a drug called Plan B, technically levonorgestrel. This is an over the counter agent that can prevent unwanted pregnancies resulting from recent unprotected sex. The Government Accounting Office has now officially documented the irregularity of this decision making process at the FDA, and after a long hiatus, the situation was remedied only under pressure from the public and from the senators who were able to control the confirmation of the new FDA commissioner.
Just last week, the New York Times reported in a front page story on April 25 that the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, OSHA, has increasingly left to industry the responsibility to set and monitor health and safety standards. This administration has set fewer standards than any in recent history. And OSHA has also largely ignored conclusions drawn by scientists, federal scientists at another agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, that diacetyl, a food flavoring agent common, for example, in popcorn, can cause a life threatening lung illness in food workers.
Most widely known have been the policy determinations in the field of stem cell research. Nearly six years ago, on August 9, 2001, President Bush limited federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research to work on human stem cell lines already in existence. Even at the time, this decision seemed politically calculated rather than scientifically or even ethically reasoned. Now the public and the Congress have been persuaded of the enormous potential for stem cell research, for discoveries and ultimately for beneficial changes in medical practice. Yet the president is preparing to veto bills to expand the nation's stem cell effort, bills that have passed both chambers of Congress by significant but not veto proof majorities.
Now in view of this still-growing political significance of stem cell research, a growth of interest in this country that's beyond what any one of us could have imagined a few years ago, I think get a few more words about this are warranted. First I'll point out that some of the consequences of the president's policy of 2001 were predictable from the outset. The number of useful lines was never as large as claimed. The number has diminished with time, and never included cell lines that could be tested clinically.
The present federal rules have slowed the pace of progress in this country, given advantage to other countries such as United Kingdom and several Asian nations, and it's discouraged young scientists from contemplating careers in this exciting new field. Last month, even President Bush's appointee as the director of NIH testified in the Senate in opposition to administration policy. Happily, he hasn't been fired. Other consequences of the Bush stem cell policy might have been difficult to anticipate, but are important.
The most important in the long run may be the fragmentation of the nation's research effort. Rather than building a unified national program to pursue this new work, we are creating a patchwork quilt of state policies that range, for example, in the Dakotas to prohibitions of work permissible elsewhere, to large scale financing of work that's ineligible for federal dollars. California illustrates one extreme. In 2004, voters strongly endorsed stem cell research-- more voted for this proposition than voted for Mr. Kerry-- by passing a broad measure that will provide $3 billion over 10 years once the multiple legal challenges to the initiative are resolved.
A few other places, including New York City, have benefited from private philanthropy for stem cell work. And now New York state, in which we all live, has joined several others by passing a measure not widely appreciated because it's been reported only fitfully in the press, passing a measure to provide funds for stem cell research, $100 million per year for at least six and probably 10 or 11 years.
These pockets of affluence-- California, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, a few others-- are good news in the short run. But they're likely to distort the distribution of stem cell investigators inequitably across the nation. And if we are not careful, these precedents could further fragment the historically successful federal oversight and funding of medical research.
Now, just this short list-- maybe not so short-- of recent events suggests a pervasive and troubling pattern of distrust of science and mishandling of science in this administration. How do we account for it? Now, to my mind it's no coincidence that these problems have arisen in this country at this time in this administration. Science itself addresses natural phenomena. But its methods, the idea of testing ideas by evaluating evidence, is applicable in nearly all fields of thought.
This administration will be remembered in large part for a war in Iraq that was based on two hypotheses, both of which lacked evidentiary support, that Saddam Hussein's regime was linked to the terrorism that produced the attacks on America in 9/11, and that weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq. Failures to apply the scientific method to these hypotheses about war and peace can be seen as harbingers of the respect the administration has shown for science itself.
But should we blame Bush for everything? [LAUGHTER] Although it's tempting, in my view it's not correct and it's not wise to do so. In large part, he and his administration have been the enablers, enablers of the long term objectives of others, including the religious right. And they have failed to respond effectively to a new world order in which we face both increasing competition from abroad and greater opportunities to advance science throughout the world. But as Michael Specter noted in his 2006 New Yorker article that accompanied this drawing, the problems facing American science have not been created by a single politician or a single party. They reflect a fissure in society that's grown wider as science has edged closer to the roots of life itself.
Three themes will dominate my discussion of the underlying causes of our woes, the uncertain and poorly guarded boundaries between religion and state, the failure to recognize science as a foundation of our social and economic well being, and our ambivalent attitudes toward the rest of the world. Our long term failure to give more attention to these themes is now coming back to haunt us in an era of flawed federal leadership.
So first let's talk about these boundaries. The boundaries between religion and state have become increasingly blurred for several years. And now the growing political force of fundamentalist evangelical Christians is affecting science-- witness stem cell policy, the teaching of science, witness intelligent design-- and public health-- witness opposition to Plan B, the advocacy of abstinence in HIV prevention settings. In these public health categories in particular, religious dogma is trumping life itself.
This administration is more beholden than any in my memory to the influence of religion. Some of us in the audience are old enough to remember concerns during the 1960 presidential election, that John F Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, would answer to the Pope in Rome and not to the American public. Today we need to pay as much attention to the First Amendment as we did then.
It's also ironic that our government has become captive to a relatively narrow segment of the religious spectrum at a time when the breadth of that spectrum has grown dramatically, particularly with increasing immigration from Asian and African countries. But we as citizens have also been lax in our responsibility to the First Amendment to ensure the separation of religion and state. And we as scientists have not been adequately engaged in efforts to understand and explain the relationship between religion and science.
Any first step in those efforts is to describe science and religion as largely separate spheres of activity. Science asking how, religion asking why. Science invoking reason, religion invoking faith. Science depending on objective evidence from the natural world, religion depending on subjective feelings and thoughts. Seen in this way, as several people have noted, they're compatible and even complementary.
But we also need to acknowledge that science and religion can be in conflict, and have been throughout history depending on the scientific realms and the religious precepts involved. Most areas of science do not confront religious teachings as directly as do reproductive biology, evolutionary sciences, or cosmology. And some religions are much less dogmatic and prescriptive than others. Just as science and religion need to define their differences, they also need to seek common ground. It's often said that scientists need to show more tolerance of religion. I plead guilty, yes.
But religious groups, especially those in the fundamentalist sector, need to show more tolerance of secular humanism, a creed that's common among scientists. Several recent reports in the New York Times are encouraging to me in this regard. Some components of the religious right are collaborating with environmental activists to protect the world against climate change. They're collaborating with secular biologists like Harvard's Ed Wilson to encourage preservation of species. And they're collaborating with public health advocates to combat disease in Africa.
Current worries about the possibility of an impending epidemic of avian influenza may offer another platform for enlarged understanding. During his remarks about the influenza situation a couple of years ago, President Bush himself referred to the idea that from time to time changes in the influenza virus result in a new strain, to which people have never been exposed. These new strains have the potential to sweep the globe. Now, this is pure Darwinism, natural variation and selection. In this drawing, for example, the influenza virus may look like a complex machine, with its spiked globes and multiple chains of nucleic acid. But no one is arguing, not even the president, that it or its derivatives are the irreducibly complex products of intelligent design. When the stakes are high, almost everyone turns to real science for help.
The second topic I'd like to discuss deals with the need to recognize the role of science in society in a more thoughtful way. And this is a problem for which scientists have largely themselves to blame. We have failed to keep the public adequately apprised of the crucial links between science and its social and economic benefits. This failure is especially damaging in the current administration because of its compulsion to cut taxes, thus reducing federal revenues and creating budget deficits. Combined with new mandatory expenses, an ill conceived war in Iraq, unanticipated natural disasters in New Orleans, expanded health care benefits, science agency budgets will fall. And they have.
Because investments in science and technology are crucial to the economic health of the nation, producing well documented returns of 130% to 150%, the current administration is really less of a friend to American business than is commonly thought. Its policies threaten our future productivity and our competitive stature throughout the world.
A report issued by the National Academies nearly two years ago by a committee chaired by Norman Augustine, the former head of Lockheed Martin, in response to a congressional request portrays the situation very vividly. The report outlines the unhappy consequences for our economy and our social well being if we don't change course. The report is particularly critical of the low status accorded to science teachers in our elementary and high schools. It's critical of the erratic and largely declining investments we're making as a nation in basic science.
And it's critical of our failure to recognize that industrial productivity depends upon scientific proficiency and incentives for innovation. The authors of the report, who are themselves captains of industry, presidents of universities, and prize-winning scientists, reflect the influence of Tom Friedman's book, The Earth is Flat, emphasizing the competitive challenge we now face from India, China, and other Asian nations, where students excel in science and math, where governments recognize that their futures depend on a highly skilled workforce, and where high technology businesses are growing rapidly. As a result, we'll soon be in danger of losing our position at the head of the global pack, unless we make substantial investments to support the teaching and practice of science. But this news has come at a time when we lack the financial resources to respond to this report's expensive recommendations with anything more than a sad acknowledgement of its conclusions.
Finally I'd like to talk about efforts to promote science as an international activity. We all acknowledge that America's status in the world has recently changed. We are now a feared and unequaled military power, neither faced off against the Soviets, nor joined in harmonious alliances. In the eyes of many people around the world, we have become both a despised invader and a vulnerable target for terrorism, not the benevolent promoter of democracy we may and ought to aspire to be. And while we remain the world's industrial leader, we are now being challenged by rising productivity in Asia and the united Europe.
We cannot afford to respond to these conditions with either xenophobia or isolationism. Initially after 9/11, immigration procedures became tougher, even for students and visiting scientists. And although the INS, the Naturalization Service, has responded to complaints from the academic community and eased visa procurement, impressions are hard to erase. While the declines in applications from abroad are not large, they are indisputable, and they are worrisome. Students, especially from Asia, shifting their sights mainly to other English-speaking countries that have strong scientific programs. This is a loss to us and a change in international reputation that we must work to resist.
Unfortunately we have squandered the sympathetic goodwill that we enjoyed after 9/11. But at only a modest cost, we can use our scientific skills to help reestablish our good character. There are many ways to do this, by helping to coordinate international surveillance against infectious disease, for example, like influenza, SARS, and HIV. By increasing our investments in science abroad, especially in poor countries and especially on topics that promote local benefit-- medicine, agriculture, water management, energy production, and environmental remediation. And we can do it by promoting connectivity through the internet and assuring that scientific reports are made readily accessible to all.
The good news here today with regard to this topic is that some of these things are already underway, and others are in the planning stages. I'd like to end by mentioning a few with which I've been personally engaged. The Gates Foundation, for example, as well as other non-governmental organizations, are promoting research on global health and often neglected diseases through programs like the Grand Challenges in Global Health that recently awarded over $400 million for such work throughout the world.
Several non-government organizations and government agencies are helping to build science abroad by creating centers of scientific excellence in poor and lower middle income countries, such as the Center for Malaria Research and Training in Bamako, Mali. And organizations are trying to promote more meaningful exchanges by programs such as the Global Science Core. A few publishers of scientific work, such as the Public Library of Science, are using the method of open access publishing to deliver new scientific papers at no charge to anyone anywhere in the world who has an internet connection, and to deposit them in a fully searchable digital library of scientific work so that science can prosper in other countries.
The essential internationalism of science is a powerful force that we can and should harness. It can defend against global epidemic diseases. It can diminish threats to the world's climate and environment. It can improve the well being and the pride of people who live in developing nations, while also reversing our declining reputation. We can use science to fulfill the aspirations of leaders like Ismail Serageldin in Alexandria, who point out that the chances of someone becoming a scientist in a poor country are only 1% the chances of becoming a scientist in a wealthy country.
The Bush administration-- again, I will emphasize-- has not been oblivious to all these things. Some of the promises it has made to promote health in Africa have even gone beyond what earlier administrations have pledged. But the good intentions of compassionate conservatism have been held hostage by budget deficits, by restrictive policies influenced by the religious right, and by disagreements with those who should be our partners.
So to conclude, what should be said in summary about the complex plight of science in America? Is science under siege? First it's important to acknowledge our continued strengths. There is still considerable federal financing of science, and unlike scientists in most countries, we enjoy additional financing from industry and from philanthropy. The science done here is still outstanding, and US remains the leader in most areas. In general, the public has confidence in science and scientists, especially in moments of crisis, even though large parts of our society are ill informed about science and misguided about how we should teach it. No significant exodus of our scientists has occurred despite many, many earnest concerns about the brain drain. And we continue to attract many excellent students from abroad, albeit in declining numbers.
But it's equally important to recognize other troubling features of a landscape that is now, as I've described it, under stress. We have to remember that the scientific enterprise is fragile, that the impact of even subtle shifts in the research environment, on the recruitment of new scientists, and we have to recognize the difficulty of reversing downward trends. Furthermore, science is expensive, and it takes time to improve our teaching of science. It's politically difficult to confront the growing influence of the religious right unless we vote correctly in 2008, and it's hard to get the attention of a public distracted by terrorism, by the war in Iraq, and by many economic concerns, to explain the importance of science to the nation's future.
My own anxieties are tinged with optimism. I'm encouraged by the several university leaders, scientists, clergy, and politicians who have boldly spoken up to defend the First Amendment, to defend evolution in the science curriculum, to defend the integrity of science policy making, and many other things. In many states the public is well ahead of federal leaders in appreciating the value of science, especially in controversial areas like stem cell research and climate change.
Science journalism has improved in the last few decades, and generally presents our issues fairly. Portrayals of science in the arts have also bloomed on the stage with plays like Copenhagen, Wit, Proof, and QED. Occasionally we see science portrayed accurately in the movies, and even in the opera. Witness Dr. Atomic last year.
Museums in New York and elsewhere are trying to explain evolution and many other complex topics to increasingly large audiences. And more scientists have recognized the need to pay attention to public opinions, the schools, and to their members in Congress. But if this is going to happen in the way that we'd like, we all need to become cheerleaders for science. Thank you very much for your attention today.
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Dr. Harold Varmus, president and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York City, delivered the annual Atkinson Forum in American Studies April 30, 2007.
With an eye on the ever-growing field of genetic research, specifically in the fight against cancer, Varmus spoke about the tensions between religion, politics, and science in today's society.
The Atkinson Forum in American Studies is sponsored by David R. and Patricia D. Atkinson.