Harold Varmus was in town recently to receive the Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research. He made some interesting comments that were reported in last Thursday's issue of the Globe and Mail [Cancer expert warns of too-great expectations]. Bayman spotted it and reported on Balblab [Varmus on "The Cure" for Cancer].
Here's what Varmus said,
Nobel laureate Harold Varmus, head of New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said one of the inherent difficulties in continuing to raise funds for cancer research is to explain to people how difficult the problems are that still lie ahead.This is part of a growing backlash against hype in the media. I think most of us realize that in the past we exploited the naivety of the media in order to advance our pet projects. As we get older we realize that we were wrong to make this pact with the devil and now we want to turn the clock back and emphasize the purity of science and the search for truth.
“These problems are really, really tough, and they're going to be knocked off more or less one by one,” he said in an interview in Toronto, where he received one of Canada's highest-profile medical awards, the Henry G. Friesen International Prize in Health Research.
Unrealistic expectations of an imminent cure for cancer have been around since former U.S. president Richard Nixon declared war on the disease in his 1971 State of the Union address, Dr. Varmus said.
They have been fuelled, he said, by a continuous stream of media articles that trumpet some initiative such as the completion of the genome project and then predict a payoff never matched by reality.
And he argued that the culture of unrealistic expectations is encouraged by the way science is taught in schools, with a focus on outcomes rather than process.
We want the general public to understand how science is really done and not how we pretended it was done. One of the reasons for this change in attitude is that science has lost credibility for not living up to the hype. Another reason is that we see the problems with a society that doesn't understand how science really works. It makes fighting creationism and other superstitions much harder.
I hate to bring up framing again but I think these two issues are related. For those of us who want to teach the truth about science, framing sounds too much like the old ways that we are trying to put behind us.
[Photo Credit: In addition to being a Nobel Laureate and President & Chief Executive of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Varmus is also Co-founder and Chairman of the Board of PLoS: Public Library of Science.]