Harold Varmus | scientist

Making science free to all.


Varmus urges researchers to become scientific activists for a better world.

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Harold Varmus is a man on a mission—a quest to liberate scientific knowledge from the bounds of journals and copyrights and make it free to all. This is no small issue to the Nobel laureate, cancer researcher, and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In fact, it is emblematic of Varmus's view that science is critical to improving the human condition and, thus, must be shared.

To Varmus, what scientists do, how they think, and what they write should be immediately and freely available online throughout the world. And if taxpayers support science, he says, sharing should be mandatory. Varmus began promoting "open access" in 1999 during his last year as director of the National Institutes of Health. Later, with a few colleagues and hefty philanthropic support, he established the Public Library of Science to show the way by publishing several prestigious open-access journals.

Historically, scientific journals pay for peer reviews, editing, and other costs through ads and subscription fees. Subscriptions often amount to hundreds of dollars per year, posing financial hurdles to readers, especially when multiplied by many journals. By contrast, the open-access model calls for the researchers (or their grants) to pay for publishing at a cost of some $2,000 to $3,000 or more per article.

It sounds sensible, but the author-pay approach has faced resistance on several fronts. Some scientists, particularly those younger and less well funded, worry that the fees will limit their publishing. Others are concerned that hundreds of millions of NIH dollars will be diverted from research and into publishing. Journals fault a model that burdens relatively few researchers with costs now shared by the large reader base. And others worry about government intrusion.

Boycotts. The push-back is something Varmus concedes he underestimated. But he got an inkling when an effort he led in 2000 fell flat. Thousands of scientists had pledged to boycott journals unwilling to make their articles free through the National Library of Medicine, but few kept their promise. Scientific careers still depend greatly on publishing in established journals.

But Varmus persisted. He stressed that lay readers, not just scientists, were being deprived of knowledge. And now, more organizations are endorsing the concept. A bill in Congress would require scientists supported by the NIH to submit work only to journals that agree to make it free online within a year.

Varmus, 67, admits that the project has consumed more time than he had hoped. But it is succeeding so far because of his leadership. On this, he gives a nod to his Nobel Prize. "I don't believe that some of the things that I've been able to do in the last few years would have been possible without that little trinket," he says.

It's more than that, though. Informing his leadership is a passion for science—with its "special powers and special beauties"—and his identity as a working scientist, not just an administrator. At Sloan-Kettering, as he did at NIH, he walks around tieless and carrying a backpack, and he works alongside students in his own research lab.

As he does, he urges researchers to go beyond the lab, to become scientific activists for a better world. Access to scientific literature is only one step; poorer nations also need a greater share of scientific investment, he says. The common language of science not only can help solve problems, he says; it also can unite people across unfriendly borders.

If we speak that language, Varmus says, "we'll build one world. If we don't, we're going to live in a fragmented world, as we do now."

U.S. News Health Editor Bernadine Healy is a former director of NIH.