Varmus Interview Discusses NIH Organization, Research Balance

Co-Chair of the new President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST), Dr. Harold Varmus, has a new interview at American Scientist‘s website.  The interview covers his work in science and science policy.  Those readers not familiar with biomedical research or the NIH will learn more about how the NIH may not be as disease-centered as coventionally thought.  You will also find some suggestion that PCAST will be a more vital and active advisory body than it’s been before.

Unfortunately, the interviewer asks a question that somehow completely confuses the problem of politicization in science.

Do you think controversial scientific questions, such as the use of human embryonic stem cells, can ever be removed from politics in the United States?

While Varmus appears to accept the premise and say that they can, a careful reading of his response demonstrates how questions involving ethics choices – like the use of human embryonic stem cells – always involve some level of politics.  He speaks of how the U.K. and the U.S. used different forms of regulation to control the use of human embryonic stem cells, and how an effective incorporation of scientific expertise in the political process would allow for effective rules on research to be established and used.