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Caltech Commencement Address

Harold Varmus
President and Chief Executive Officer
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, California
June 13, 2003

It is a particular privilege to speak here on this happy occasion. Although I never studied at Caltech, my career as a scientist is as firmly grounded here as at any place I actually trained. In nearly all my scientific work I have depended on the molecular approaches and the seminal ideas about viruses that were developed at Caltech over the past half century, by some of your historic heroes -- by Max Delbruck and Renato Dulbecco, by Harry Rubin and Howard Temin. The feeling of homecoming is further enhanced by the sight of my friend and colleague, David Baltimore, at the helm and a favorite Memorial Sloan-Kettering Board member and the Chairman of yours, Ben Rosen, introducing me at the podium.

This comfortable situation compares favorably to an earlier experience at an academic ritual. Seven years ago, not long after I had become the Director of the National Institutes of Heath, I received my first invitation to speak at a college commencement, from the president of the only Ivy League university in Massachusetts. To my surprise and amusement, the undergraduates greeted the announcement of my selection with responses ranging from disinterest to derision. Some joked about Dr. Who, others drew cartoons in the school newspaper, satirizing a nerdy retrovirologist. They had been expecting to hear from someone famous -- a powerful statesman or a well-known entertainer, Bill Clinton or Bill Cosby, but not a scientist -- and with reason. The historical record showed that I was the first scientist to speak at their commencement in fifty-one years, the first since Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, in 1945.

This reaction, of course, was also a challenge. My goal was to turn their disappointment into, at least, grudging respect, by describing how science has transformed, enriched, and mostly improved our society and the way we live.

My chapter and verse were taken from Francis Bacon: "Printing, gunpowder, and the magnet," Bacon wrote in 1620, "have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world… no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs."

My examples for the graduates came from the fields I know best, biology and medicine. I told them how Harvard scientists I greatly admired developed methods to grow polioviruses in cell culture, paving the way to polio vaccines; how the discoveries that my colleagues and I had made about cancer genes were starting to improve the care of cancer patients; and how future research on biochemical properties of nerve cells might ultimately reduce the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease on our aging population. Science serves society, I told them, and it deserves more of your attention and respect.

Happily, that message doesn't need to be delivered to this audience. Instead I want to focus on the reverse -- how society serves science. But to do so also requires us to think about what society expects in return, and about how those expectations can influence what we do.

We choose careers in science, as virtually all of you have done, because we have special skills, enjoy the pleasures of analysis and discovery, and respect certain precepts, such as the rational evaluation of evidence. But we also have pragmatic needs. Unless we are immensely rich, we depend on societies -- their governments, their philanthropic families and organizations, their scholarly institutions -- to satisfy those needs and thus make our work possible. Because we depend on them, societies can shape science according to their own needs and values, enhancing or limiting the capacity of science and its prospects for achievement. These were lessons I learned every day at the NIH, where the needs and aspirations of science were in a constant tug of war with other claims on the Federal treasury.

I was inspired to talk today about this relationship between scientists and society by a recent aesthetic experience. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in Venice, standing in front of Vittore Carpaccio's extraordinary tableau of St. Augustine in his study, painted almost exactly 500 years ago, in the first decade of the 16th century.

Vision of St. Augustine Vittore Carpaccio (1450-1526)
Vision of St. Augustine

A slide projector is not appropriate for today's occasion, so I have provided a copy of the painting for the graduates and others with me on the stage. Consider it a small souvenir, perhaps one that will help you remember this talk longer than most commencement talks are remembered. But I must ask the rest of you to envision the painting, based on a brief description.

St. Augustine, considered one of the world's greatest moral philosophers, is seated at his desk in a magnificent room. Despite the fact that Augustine lived eleven hundred years earlier and spent all but four years of his life in North Africa, Carpaccio designed the room in his own contemporary Italian Renaissance style. This alerts us not to take the painting too literally and to focus instead on its mood and message as a reflection of Carpaccio's views of his own society and its relations with scholarship.

With a pen poised in his hand, the future saint is gazing out of a window in the right hand third of the painting, surrounded by books, musical scores, manuscripts, a Ptolemeic model of the universe, and some mysterious devices that might even be laboratory equipment. To intensify this scholarly atmosphere, the left hand portion of the painting displays more shelves and a cabinet with books, works of art, and instruments. A small white dog sits and watches his master, his size emphasizing the generosity of the space, and the tilt of his head lending a sense of humanity and humor to the scene. Religious objects occupy the central portion -- but in the background, framed by an arch. These objects tell us that the Church is the source of support for this scholar -- it is his NIH and his Caltech. But the ambience is distinctly secular -- we are in the presence of an inquiring mind, not blind faith, and the mode is philosophical and pragmatic, not especially spiritual.

The painting tells us that society, in the form of the Church, was singularly kind to this unusual man. What did it expect in return by endowing one person's intellectual work in this way? Apparently a mixture of intense philosophical thought, broad curiosity about the arts and sciences, and possibly a bit of practical invention. The artist's representation implies the existence of a donor with the capacity for generosity, an appreciation of merit, and the self-confidence to provide intellectual freedom.

Of course, this was not always the case. A century after Carpaccio painted this scene, the Church called Galileo a heretic for displaying too much freedom of thought.

Today we are fortunate to live in a culture that values scientific inquiry highly. We may complain about the public's level of understanding of science or about the prolonged apprenticeships and limited compensation for some careers in science. But our nation's financial investments in science are large, and the political support is generally strong.

With respect to my own field of biomedical science, for example, the public currently displays a romantic fascination with the human genome, and handsomely finances many imaginative approaches to understand it. The government -- which long ago replaced private donors, let alone the Church, as the major source of funds for basic science -- has decreed unprecedented increases over the past five years in the budget of the NIH. And most citizens believe, with reason, that biological sciences can eventually protect us from SARS, AIDS, and other microbial dangers; improve treatments for dread diseases like cancer; and benefit some of our major industries. These and many other factors have created an atmosphere for doing science in the United States that many other countries should, and do, envy.

Still, if we are to maintain a beneficial relationship between science and its patrons, we need to recall the Galileos and be sensitive to early signs of potentially damaging change. Regrettably, despite the generally good health of the enterprise, such signs are emerging, in response to economic, political, and social currents in our society. Tax cuts and a weak economy mean that the nation's funding for research will not continue to increase at recent rates, if it increases at all. A political climate increasingly influenced by fears of terrorism, by war and instability in distant lands, and by the religious right-wing domestically is unlikely to bring out the best in science. In this environment, society's expectations for science can shift to short-range necessities at the expense of unfettered inquiry into basic truths.

Hopefully, these will prove to be short-term and even exaggerated concerns; certainly they do not suit the mood of celebration that is appropriate for the day. So let's consider another way to assess more generally the atmosphere in which science has been done over the past decade or two by asking whether society permits the science it supports to remain an exhilarating experience, not just a grim duty, for scientists. To illustrate this approach before concluding, I'd like to tell you briefly about two extraordinary people, both recently and prematurely deceased, who displayed the spirit that society should strive to sustain in its scientists.

The first of these was a woman I never met, a Canadian astronomer named Rebecca Elson, who died a few years ago at the age of thirty-nine. I learned about her from a favorable review of a small collection of her poems and essays, called A Responsibility to Awe, published by her friends after her death. Based on the review, I was curious to learn more about her short and seemingly difficult life. Despite fighting cancer for a decade and enduring obstacles to advancement within her profession, Elson remained an optimist about studying the heavens. "We astronomers are nomads,/Merchants, circus people,/All the earth our tent" she wrote in what became the title poem of her book; "We are industrious./We breed enthusiasms,/Honour our responsibility to awe." In a brilliant short essay, "From Stones to Stars," she relates how her father, a geologist, sparked her interest in science on summer trips, seeking stones on the shores of northern Canadian lakes; how she absorbed the many fluctuations in the development of her career as an astronomer; and how she found scientific bliss working on data transmitted from the Hubble telescope -- so that finally she could feel "privileged indeed to be able to spend my days inside a tent with such a dazzling roof."

The second scientist of remarkable spirit was my friend and colleague, Ira Herskowitz, an undergraduate in the Caltech class of 1967, who died less than two months ago at the age of fifty-six. Ira too was inspired by a scientist-father and viewed science as an aesthetic experience, but his career was much more successful in conventional terms than Elson's -- he was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an immensely popular teacher and mentor at a great medical center, UC San Francisco, and internationally revered for his genetic analyses of yeast and other organisms. Although Ira took his civic responsibilities seriously -- he chaired the Biochemistry Department, filed the occasional patent application, and performed many chores for the scientific community -- he never lost his simple sense of joy, his "responsibility to awe," about a beautiful experiment. This was especially so when an experiment with a simple organism, like baker's yeast, revealed a truth about more complex organisms, such as ourselves. "The awesome power of yeast genetics," was his mantra, and his delight was to proselytize to that state of awe. He was an unabashed romantic about the unities in biology -- the uniformity of the genetic code, the principles of evolution and genetic change, the mechanisms of cell growth and behavior. Even as he sought therapies to combat his inevitably lethal cancer, he reveled in his laboratory's use of "the awesome power of yeast genetics" to learn why tumors might become resistant to a chemotherapy he had tried himself.

[A postscript: Immediately after the Commencement exercises, I learned about other dimensions of Ira's role at Caltech. Pamela Bjorkman, one of the current leaders of the Biology Division at Caltech, told me she had been a graduate student with Ira at the University of Oregon in the 1970's, yet another example of his extraordinary success as a mentor. She also showed me copies of folk song lyrics Ira had written during his undergraduate years about his experiences at Caltech; Ira's abilities as a guitarist and song writer throughout his career were widely known.]

The lives of these two people, a virtual friend and an actual one, illustrate the state of science in our society, just as the Carpaccio's vision of St. Augustine reveals the condition of scholarship in the early Renaissance. Science and society -- a relationship that is built on mutual dependencies and inherently fragile -- yet together capable of remarkable achievements: an understanding of life, our planet, our universe and even ourselves.

As a final exercise I ask you to close your eyes and re-imagine Carpaccio's painting. This time place yourself in the picture as the central figure, the scientist, in some future time, perhaps the second or third decade of this new century. For most of you, the physical setting is likely to be a university, a research institute, or an industrial laboratory -- not a religious cloister. The implements are new and different: a word processor, not pen and paper; a CD player, not a musical score; journals freely accessible on the Internet, not expensive books laboriously penned; laboratory instruments of great power and accuracy, not inaccurate models of the universe. The room is probably less spacious, and you are probably surrounded by students, post-docs, and colleagues, not alone with a dog. Indeed you may feel fortunate to have your own desk, some bench space, and a personal computer.

But now look more closely and try to discern from your features what you might be thinking. Imagine yourself in a pose that resembles what the 16th century art historian Vasari said about another version of Augustine, painted by another famous artist, Botticelli, over 500 years ago. His head shows [Vasari wrote in 1568] "that profound cognition and sharp subtlety which is only present in persons of wisdom who continually devote their thoughts to the examination of topics of the highest order and greatest difficulty."

This is my wish for each of you today: that our society will treat you well enough that you can devote at least some of your thoughts to "topics of the highest order and the greatest difficulty."

Thanks for listening, and for thinking.