May 1, 2007

Nobel Winner Talks Science and Religion

Print More

“Is science under siege?” was the question on Dr. Harold Varmus’ mind as he delivered his address titled “The Future of Science in America” in Statler Auditorium yesterday afternoon. The co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for studies on the genetic basis of cancer and former director of the National Institutes of Health appeared as part of the Atkinson Forum in American Studies, which has brought noteworthy visitors, including Coretta Scott King and John Updike, to the Cornell campus since March 2002, thanks to a gift from David and Pat Atkinson.
The lecture, which President Skorton described as “thought-provoking” and “thrilling,” began with Varmus’ concerned though emphatically “not apocalyptic” message that Americans are neglecting to realize “the potential of science.” Dr. Varmus acknowledged that “The U.S. remains the leader in most areas of research,” and “in general, the public shows confidence in science and scientists.” But Varmus expressed concern that “Scientists report anxiety about their career prospects and a sense of alienation.”
“This is not new, but it is more acute and intense now than it has been in recent memory,” Varmus said.
Varmus asserted that this unease on the part of the scientific community stems from deficiencies in three conditions needed to encourage scientific work. Varmus qualified these conditions as adequate education and training, support and respect from the government and conducive cultural conditions, or a society in which “dogmas, both political and religious, are divorced from science.”
Varmus went on to describe the threats currently facing these three necessary conditions. Education has suffered because of the inadequate pay for public school teachers and the highly selective practices of schools, which only devote time and energy to the top of the class.
“We don’t care about public understanding as long as we win wars and Noble prizes,” Varmus lamented.
The addition of intelligent design to school curricula is also a blow to science education in Varmus’ view.
“Even the name ‘intelligent design’ is pretentious and misleading,” Varmus said. “Its supporters pose no testable hypotheses, do no experiments, publish no papers — this is religion, not science.”
As for government support of the sciences, Varmus reported more discouraging news. The projections for the percentage of the federal budget to be allocated for scientific research is “flat,” according to Varmus.
“The Bush administration did come through on its promise to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health,” Varmus said, highlighting one of science’s successes under this administration. But, Varmus added, “the budget has not kept up with inflation.”
Due to this limited budget, success rates for grant applicants, especially first-timers, will reach unprecedented lows.
“Stiff competition demoralizes frustrated applicants and reviewers alike,” Varmus said.
According to Varmus, not only has the Bush administration failed to provide adequate funding for scientific research, but it has shown a “disregard for the advisory role scientists have played in policy for decades” as well. This disregard for scientific opinion has led to what Varmus calls “policy that flies in the face of views widely held by science.” Varmus referred specifically to instances in which scientific reports from NASA and from the EPA were “watered down” in order to suit intended policy decisions. Varmus also called Bush’s opposition to stem cell research “politically calculated, rather than scientifically or even ethically reasoned.”
Varmus then posed a question: “Should we blame Bush for everything?” In answer, Varmus said that “It is tempting, but it is not correct, and it is not wise.” Rather, Varmus blamed American society, in which Varmus quoted Michael Specter of the New York Times as saying “there is a fissure.” This fissure is due to an unyielding conflict between science and religion.
“We need to seek common ground,” Varmus said, admitting that the scientific community can be just as intolerant of religion as religious persons can be of science.
But Varmus emphasized that religious prejudice against scientific research has been especially damaging, as often times “religious dogma trumps life itself.” Varmus also blamed Americans for being “lax in our responsibility to defend the first amendment” and to stop our federal leadership from “blurring the boundaries between religion and state.”
Having complimented him on his talk, Skorton sat down for a discussion with Varmus, acknowledging Varmus’ successful career in both English and science. Among the topics of discussion was the “crisis in gender equality in science and engineering.” Varmus acknowledged that “women are in science in nearly equal numbers [to men] up until the professorial realm.” But Varmus cautioned that “increased awareness is not enough.” Varmus expressed his support of offices that “monitor the process of hiring, promotion and giving credit” in research institutions in order to do more than just acknowledge the problem.
A number of Cornell professors posed questions to Varmus following his brief discussion with Skorton, among them Prof. Hunter R. Rawlings III, classics, a former University president. Rawlings described himself as a “strong separationist” in terms of religion and state, but admitted that at times, “I’ve been grateful that religion has entered the public sphere,” citing abolitionist preachers in the 19th century and Martin Luther King Jr. Varmus responded that it was laudable for these individuals to pursue their rights as citizens and to express their views. However, they were decidedly not “imposing their views on others,” a tendency of the federal government which Varmus encouraged the public to resist, especially when the professed beliefs of the country’s leaders stifle research.
“We all need to become cheerleaders for science,” Varmus said.