Blog: Science is inherently international, don’t let Brexit or right-wing nationalistic politics spoil it: Nobel laureate Prof Harold Varmus – The Indian Express

“Science is inherently international. Don’t let Brexit or right-wing nationalistic politics spoil it,” American Nobel Prize-winning scientist Prof Harold Varmus said at a public talk ‘Axioms on a Career in Science’ at National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS) in Pune Tuesday.

The Nobel Laureate in physiology or medicine (1989), who is currently the Lewis Thomas University professor of medicine, was in Pune for two days and interacted with scientists and students. At the public talk, he spoke about the ten axioms that have been guiding principles for him for a career in science.

He said science was best practised as a team sport and cannot be a solitary activity. Observing that science is never free of politics, he pointed out that science serves society and vice versa. Expanding on the recent threats to international relations in science, the Nobel laureate said “ethnocentric paranoia’ was a matter of concern and has been deterring Chinese scientists from coming to the USA.

“America-first policies, visa and immigration procedures and excessive competitiveness are part of the recent threats to international relations in science and it is important to understand that science can inspire and unite us. Science can teach us what it means to be human,” Prof Varmus said.

“Fortunately, there was a supportive political environment when I headed the National Institutes of Health, USA,” Prof Varmus said and narrated some of the memorable moments as director. Along with Anthony Fauci, he had convinced Bill Clinton and Al Gore of a vaccine research centre. It was a good environment for recruitment, expansion and construction and several advances were made like the human genome project, targeted cancer drugs and setting up new methods for online `open access’ publishing – like the Public Library of Science (PloS) and open peer review.

Disseminating knowledge through digital public libraries was part of the trend of changing the culture of science, said Prof Varmus who is a strong proponent of making work accessible to others as soon and freely as possible.

The literature student who eventually switched to science was instrumental, along with Micheal Bishop, in discovering virus genes that cause cancer. The duo also found that these so-called oncogenes did not originally come from the virus, but from normal cells and that these had been incorporated into the virus.

He said that goals can be set for a career in science by deciding what question one wants to answer. We need to ask the right question for the right problem, employ the right method, ensure a correct interpretation with follow-up and right application to enable scientific discoveries,” he noted.

The two broad questions the Nobel laureate focussed on were how RNA tumour viruses (retroviruses) grow and how they turn a normal cell into a cancerous one. “Eventually, we recognised the unanticipated societal benefits from community efforts to answer such questions,” he added. While he said that a career in science can be a privilege, Prof Varmus also urged not to undervalue opportunities to engage in formal teaching.

At the question and answer session following the talk, he spoke about his disappointment over the largely underrepresented minorities in science. “We have seen women rising in science over the years but what remains a challenge is improving the representation of minority groups,” he said. Earlier, Dr Shekhar Mande, former director general of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, said he was a multi-faceted personality while Dr Mohan Wani, director of the NCCS, welcomed him.

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