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The Art and Politics of Science Hardcover – February 2, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (February 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393061280
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393061284
  • Product Dimensions: 1.1 x 6.3 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,186,493 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Varmus offers a plain-spoken and fascinating story of his path from graduate student in English literature to the forefront of biomedical research. His journey to the highest echelons of the scientific establishment is as interesting for its incidental details as for its glimpse into the process of modern biomedical science.” (Seth Shulman - The Washington Post)

“[A] perceptive book about science and its civic value, arriving as the White House renews its acquaintance with empiricism. Varmus recounts his laboratory career and tenure as director of the National Institutes of Health, then surveys topical issues like stem-cell research. One implication of this book is that far from disconnecting politics and science, we should find better ways of linking them.” (Peter Dizikes - The New York Times)

“An engaging read, fascinating as a memoir of Varmus’s personal and scientific journeys, revealing in its account of his stewardship of the NIH. The book is like the man—honest and clear-eyed, thoughtful and outspoken, always good company, with more than a frequent touch of humour and self-deprecation.” (Scientific American)

From the Back Cover

The Art and Politics of Science is a unique work by a remarkable global leader: a brilliant scientist with the sensibilities of an artist and the leadership skills of a consummate politician. Harold Varmus has done it all—Nobel Prize–winning breakthroughs in cancer biology, masterful leadership of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during its period of greatest expansion, statesmanship of the highest order in global health, and cheerful trench warfare to bring biomedical publications to the open-source Internet age. [This] book is captivating, fascinating, and ever instructive. It will be read the world over with enormous delight and benefit.”—Jeffrey D. Sachs, director, The Earth Institute

“Through an artful melding of science and policy, Harold Varmus conveys not only the excitement of forefront research but also the richly textured human dramas that swirl around pivotal discoveries.”—Brian Greene, author of The Elegant Universe
“Varmus makes this era’s revolution in biological knowledge as comprehensible as it possibly can be. Varmus’s broad abilities in scientific, literary, and political realms are evident in this graceful and often gently humorous book.”—James Fallows, author of Blind into Baghdad: America’s War in Iraq

“If you’ve ever wondered about the early life of a budding scientist, the experience of doing cutting-edge research, or the translation of brilliant work into public service, read the account of this passionate, politically engaged, deeply humane scientist and marvel at the richness of a life well spent.”—Andrea Barrett, National Book Award–winning author of Ship Fever
“Harold Varmus is a person of legendary charm and limitless vision who has put his gifted mind to the service of science, health, and above all . . . the people of the world. I loved this book.”—Donna E. Shalala, president, University of Miami, and former secretary, Health and Human Services

“Any time any one of us has a cancer scare, or worse, we can be grateful to Harold Varmus and his extraordinary life in science. We are all lucky that Dr. Varmus left literature for medicine. And now, reading this book, we can be grateful that he is so very gifted in both.”—Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Beak of the Finch

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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See all 18 customer reviews
It is an easy read that still manages to expand our appreciation of biology and the culture necessary to sustain it.
Marc Kirschner
This book was published "mainstream" and the title is intriguing, but the vast majority of the pages are devoted to a recap of the author's scientific career.
Sandra M. Brown
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the human side of how science is done and how medical research benefits us.
P. Krishnan

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Marc Kirschner on March 4, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Harold Varmus is an unusual scientist, who was a major participant in the most important discovery in cancer biology in history (for which he shared the Nobel Prize with J.Michael Bishop), directed the NIH, the most important medical research center in the world, and is presently the head of Memorial Sloan Kettering, where he has presided over an impressive growth in scientific discovery and clinical applications. In this reflection over his early development as a scientist, his important scientific discoveries, and his political experience in Washington, Varmus brings all of these down to a familiar and understandable level. Somehow this seems both remarkable and yet within reach of non-scientists. We trace Varmus's middle class beginnings, his love of books and flirtation with teaching English literature as a career, rejection from Harvard and acceptance to Columbia Medical School, his fortuitous associations at NIH, to his wonderful collaborations in California. These events are treated with gratitude, irony, and humor. The book is devoid of sentimentality, never condescends, explains the science accurately and simply, and portrays science as it often is, a combination of choosing a good problem, thinking clearly, working hard, and collaborating fairly and openly with students and other scientists. Somehow these simple virtues also worked pretty well in the frenetic Washington environment. For the reader of any background, Varmus's story will appear approachable and informative, a rare glimpse into modern science and science policy. It is an extraordinary career and a captivating story, told in a friendly and often humorous manner, with the goal of informing rather than impressing. It is an easy read that still manages to expand our appreciation of biology and the culture necessary to sustain it.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By reading widely on February 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am fan of biographies and history of science, too. This book hugely satisfies on these levels. Dr. Varmus's passions come through beautifully -- from the lab, to heading large, important institutions, to his friends and colleagues, to his family, to the love of learning. I am not a scientist and you don't have to be one to enjoy this book (although a certain level of science literacy is necessary). This book is elegant on the science and the personal comes through. Very appealing.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Leigh Sutton on February 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Cancer researcher Harold Varmus has been called a Renaissance man, and the label is aptly bestowed. Varmus is as much at home in the world of art and literature as he is in the scientific realm, where his work with the oncogene--the mutating gene that causes cancer--earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine. These dual abilities uniquely qualify him to tell his tale. While Varmus describes his life and work engagingly, he is able with equal and contagious enthusiasm to explain, for example, the structure and function of DNA. As a nonscientific person, I didn't understand all the details of the discoveries he describes, but I got the gist and was warmed by the excitement he communicates. A stunning story by a powerful intellect.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Stephen M. Sagar on April 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Do not be detracted by the title, "The Art and Politics of Science". Professor Varmus is a founder of the modern science of oncology, having discovered the role of oncogenes and signaling pathways in the development of cancer. This has led to amazing new therapies, such as Imatinib (Gleevec) for chronic myeloid leukemia and Herceptin for HER2/Neu (Erb-B2) positive breast cancer, that have prolonged the lives of many patients with cancer. The targeted therapies provide new hope for those with previously resistant malignancies, such kidney cancer. Harold Varmus was awarded the Nobel prize for this work. Just simply describing this journey of discovery is enough to recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the modern biology of cancer. However, its real strength is that the author describes this journey poetically and with passion, so that at the end of the book the reader is inspired to enter a similar scientific mission of discovery. So, if you are a high school student, a university student who wishes to re-evaluate your career and follow the scientific pathway (as, indeed, Harold Varmus did when he changed from graduate studies in English literature to medical school), or a seasoned oncologist (like myself), the opportunities to make a difference are all around us.

I especially enjoyed the expression of four main themes or sections: Becoming a Scientist: Doing Science; A Political Scientist; and Continuing Controversies. These dissertations are richly expressed through the author's ability to think outside of the box, to distil new ideas into focused research, to inspire others, and then to communicate his findings in understandable language.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By D on May 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I went into this thinking the discussions would focus on the more 'political' side of science, outside of the laboratory - getting jobs, tenure, climbing ladders, building a reputation. And it did, in a few short sections. However, and for example, usually scientists have a great transition between postdoc and running their own laboratory. This shift was not really discussed at all, rather the book went into collaborations with other UCSF scientists immediately. I went into the book thinking the transition stages would be discussed in the big picture and with personal experience, and found throughout that they were lacking.

However, I did not expect a run-down of the science that led to the Nobel prize and such details on that section. I was not interested in this, and would believe the text boring for many readers not directly involved in research.

I found much of the book, particularly the later sections, to be short stories without clear ends. The problems and solutions at the NIH section in particular was rather lacking in consistency and seemed to be a collection of anecdotes.

The beginning story of English to medicine was interesting, but really, where were the clinical stories? Surely there are examples. And of the Human Genome Project? Others have given their account of the 'race' and I thought that the one herein would be interesting - after all, funding was truely ramped up during the time he was the head of the NIH. Surely there are interesting anecdotes regarding that. And so on...

Overall, I can't give it a low score just because it was not what I expected. I guess I wanted something else.
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