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Is Science Under Siege?

Harold Varmus addresses the meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Harold Varmus addresses the meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

During the course of a wide-ranging address at a public meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on November 16, 2005, at The Rockefeller University, Harold Varmus addressed the question, "Is science under siege?" His answer was that while "siege" might be too strong a word, "duress" was certainly not. Yet his remarks, while cautionary, also sounded notes of optimism and explored remedies.

Dr. Varmus observed that "despite the successes of the past century and despite the optimism about what science can achieve in this one -- science seems to be under attack on several fronts." He reported that scientists are feeling a sense of alienation from the dominant culture and politics of American society, and noted that this feeling is driven by "an underappreciation of science as an essential feature of our culture, by declining budgets for science, and by sharpened conflicts with religion in education and science policy."

Dr. Varmus warned that the regressive science policies espoused by the current administration -- citing, among others, onerous restrictions on human stem cell research; poor prospects for increased federal funding for scientific (including biomedical) and medical research; the ongoing efforts by elements of the religious right to undermine the teaching of evolution in high school science classes; and the failure to use science in the service of global good will -- all conspire to threaten the nation's "founding principles, our system of public education, and the future of American science." He urged a substantial investment to support the teaching and practice of science.

"America's status in the world has changed," Dr. Varmus said. "In the eyes of many peoples, we have become both a despised invader and a vulnerable target for terrorism. . . . The essential internationalism of science is a powerful force that we can and should harness: to defend against global epidemic diseases, to diminish threats to the world's climate and environment, and to improve the well-being of people who live in the developing world, while also reversing our declining reputation."

He concluded by acknowledging America's continued strengths. "The science done here is still outstanding, and the United States remains the leader in most areas," Dr. Varmus asserted, urging all citizens to "become cheerleaders for science."  [Full text of Is Science Under Siege.]