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Science Talk

Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus and Rocky the Flying Mesozoic Mammal

In this episode, Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus talks about the challenges facing the U.S. in science and technology competitiveness and some possible plans of action, related to the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project. And the American Museum of Natural History's Jin Meng discusses a major new fossil find, a flying mammal some 130 million years old. Plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include www.sciam.com/podcast; www.sciam.com/news; www.sciamdigital.com; www.hamiltonproject.org; www.amnh.org/science; www.nature.com.

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting December 13th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus; and we will talk to Jin Meng, co-discoverer of a major fossil and early gliding mammal. “Hello, watch the flying squirrel speaking.” (mimicking mammalian voice) Must be the wrong mammal. Plus, we will test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Harold Varmus. He is currently the President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center here in New York City. From 1993 to 1999, he was Director of the National Institutes of Health. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine for his studies of the genetic basis of cancer. Last week, Varmus took part in a forum, put together by something called the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, focusing on policies to advance science and technology. Other panel participants included former treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. I met with Varmus on Monday at his office at Sloan-Kettering.

Steve: Dr. Varmus, great to talk to you today.

Dr. Varmus: Thank you very much. Nice to see you.

Steve: Tell me about the Hamilton Project. What is it? How did you get involved with it and why?

Dr. Varmus: I got involved with it because I received a telephone call from Bob Rubin asking me to participate in a forum, which we held last week at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington on the topic of how we can ensure a better future for science and technology in this country. The Hamilton Project is a broader ranged initiative that has been undertaken by Bob Rubin and several of his colleagues, who, like many of us, are distressed by many of the policies of the current administration that seem to be taking the country in a wrong direction. The initiative is an attempted, kind of, grassroots intellectual movement to come up with a series of ideas that will move us towards a more stable economic arena, [in] which the middle-class gets more benefits than it is getting now from the wealth in this country, and also puts the country on a trajectory that supports the good things the country has traditionally done. Many of us are distressed by the lack of adequate tax revenues to fund the good things the government does. The tendency of the current administration [is] to undermine science in a variety of ways that range from the fiscal to the regulatory and the political, and the session that was sponsored last week was a combination of people providing ideas for relatively small changes and[in] the way we see science—for example, funding more National Science Foundation studentships, to changes in the pattern system—and then five of us were asked to speak fairly broadly about how we can improve science and technology in the country.

Steve: So, what were some of the things that you specifically discussed from your vantage point?

Dr. Varmus: Well, I was asked to talk about something that bothers me greatly, which is the difficulty that the country is having, despite its wealth, in providing adequate support for research and technology from federal funds. There is a history that ought to be just touched on a moment. Since the Second World War, we, as a country depended increasingly on the Federal government for the support of science. In the eighteenth, nineteenth centuries and first half of the twentieth century, a lot of this support came from industry and philanthropy—and we have continued support from those sectors—but for most of the basic science in this country, the Federal government is the hand that feeds us. Unfortunately, the Federal government works in a way that it is not necessarily entirely consistent with the best means to oversee science, even though the endeavor has been largely successful. America is certainly the most important country worldwide in science and technology and we would like to maintain that position. But the way the government works—as we who have been in the government have come to understand—is by annual appropriations. But obviously giving money to a scientist for one year doesn't work; science takes longer than that. Our Most grants are awarded for three to five years. Our scientists do projects that may take 10 or 15 years, and therefore there is an inherent instability in the process. If you consider the[at] science that is supported by the government in two ways: one, the fundamental science— that justice directed it;learning new things about the natural world and those aspects of science that have direct applications. What you see is that the organizations like NASA and the NIH have had quite substantial increases in funding, but they are both very subject to increases and decreases in a fashion that is quite volatile. I'll come back to that in a moment. The other part though, the basic science—especially the basic sciences in chemistry and physics—have been dramatically neglected over the last couple of decades. This is something which has been very well documented and mourned in a report from the National Academy of Sciences that was issued by a committee headed by Norman Augustine just a few months ago and this report—which is called "he Gathering Storm"—lays out in some detail the concern that that [leaves us] with a long hole over the next couple of decades, because of weaknesses in [the] way we fund basic physical sciences, the way we are training people to do physical sciences, the way we treat science in elementary and high-school programs—all of those factors, the way we pay teachers, the way we use the patent system where we try to provide incentives in some of the physical sciences; we are losing our leadership gradually to other countries, especially in Europe and [of] particular concern in Asia, where the rise of science in, particularly China, to a certain extent India and other parts of Southeast Asia, are cause for long-term concern. In those science agencies like the NIH, it can be said honestly that the NIH has had increase in dollars over the last 10 years, but problem has been that the increase came rapidly every five years. At the end of those five years, NIH was held totally flat without even inflationary increases and the result is that most of the money that the NIH receives each year, the vast majority has been committed to grantees who got their awards at the time of growth and now there is very little money left to pay the inflationary increases to avoid[afford] new grants. Every year there is a new generation of scientists. People who finish their postdoctoral training [and] have taken new jobs want grants, and when the success rates for those grant applications turn out to be 10 percent …

Steve: Alright, the cupboard is bare for them.

Dr. Varmus: … [the] cupboard [is] bare for them.

Steve: As a scientist though, don't you think it's good that the rest of the world is getting up to speed so greatly at science?

Dr. Varmus: Yes, I do applaud that, and I think competition is very healthy in science. Some people say, well, you should all be collaborating, but in-collaboration does go on and that's healthy too.

Steve: But the reality is &mdash133;

Dr. Varmus: The competition is terrific, and actually I spent a fair amount of my time trying to promote science in developing countries. I think it's crucial that we do that. A—I think science makes the world a healthier and safer place. B—the problems that many developing countries have are only going to be solved by science and technology; and one of the things that I have been troubled by as a science administrator when I was at the NIH is that it is very difficult to use the amount of American dollars that I would like to use to address problems that are peculiar[particular] to or even shared with the developing countries; and th[e]at more we can do to promote science broader the better. Nevertheless, I want American talent to be exploited as productively as possible because we are in a position to advance everyone's cause very rapidly. Secondly, to an extent that most people forget science and technology drive tremendous amount of employment in this country. The NIH is spending something in the order of 20 billion dollars or more at universities and research institutions. You know, where NIH is responsible for building buildings; for paying researchers who are also teachers; for paying studentships and postdoctoral fellowships; for providing the money that allows people to buy research supplies that are made by companies; generates ideas that the pharmaceutical and biotech companies use to make new products. It's an incredible driver of our economy. Economists have repeatedly shown that investment by the Federal government in science has reward of well over a return of over a 120 or 150 percent. So, this is good for the nation. And I sometimes feel that people perceive the complaints of scientists about funding as narrowly partisan when in fact, a very large segment of our population is dependent upon the largess of government in supporting science.

Steve: Do we have a schizoid relationship to science in this country? It seems to me, based on some of the letters we even get at Scientific American, that a lot of Americans have a real distrust of a lot of science. They love technology, but they have a distrust of certain science. I mean, the obvious thing is evolution, but cosmologists are starting to [fee] it. Is that a factor in people's relationship with their legislatures and then the funding?

Dr. Varmus: I think it probably is, but the fact is that science is still a very popular activity. Scientists are highly regarded by the country on the whole. In the cases, just this last couple of elections, where stem cell politics, for example, has been played out in the electoral process, stem cell research is[has] done better than the winning candidates for offices; and I think, apart from that, I think that we do have a serious problem in general education of the sciences and that accounts for the reluctance of a large segment of the population to accept the principles of evolution and think that there is still a debate about it, which there isn’t—and that's a problem we need to solve,—but I still think there is an incredible constituency for science in this country. Whenever you ask people about medical research, I think they understand, but it is not just the applied research. People have trouble sometimes articulating the question of what we should do in biomedical research by saying, I want the disease, I am interested to be[in the disease being] studied more carefully. But I think everybody understands that you can't completely understand autism until you understand how the brain works, you can't understand cancer until you understand how cells know whether to grow or to be quiescent. So, these questions I think can be translated for the general audience, but we do have an audience that is less skilled in talking about science than most of us would like.

Steve: So, what are some of the nuts-and-bolts recommendations that have either been made or going to come out of this think-tank activity that might actually make a difference?

Dr. Varmus: Yeah, that's a very good question and till date, we haven't been asked to develop policy papers out of that forum, but a lot of things were put on the table. I think there are—my own concern is that we develop advocacy that is more strident frankly and broader based than we have had before. Scientists have recently, over the last 10 years or so, [have] become more engaged in [the] legislative process and have been more outspoken than they were in the earlier phases of my career; but we need other people—not just the patient advocacy groups, which are out there—but the industries that depend on research findings on[in] the sector that [are] is concerned about the education of, in the sciences, people who simply are worried about the economic future of the country—to be looking at the Augustine report from the National Academy, understanding some of the issues, and getting out there and speaking on behalf of a long-range investment and science. There are other ways to try to create incentives for greater support of science by industry, by philanthropy; and those ought to be pursued too because I think the record shows that we simply can't depend entirely on the Federal government—especially in view of the kind of fluctuations that result from either depressions in the national treasury; that result from reductions and tax revenues; or the expenditures sometimes unexpected like Katrina; or unfortunate expenditures like the ones we are spending now in Iraq. So, we have a lot of pressure on a reduced federal treasury and that's making life particularly hard. And the one thing we shouldn't be abandoning for the future of the country are investments in what this country has done so well and what it returns so much to the country—namely, science and technology.

Steve: Do you think the Democratic control of Congress is going to make any immediate difference in all this?

Dr. Varmus: It may. You know, I have to say that—and I want to say that—science is benefited from many supporters in the Republican Party, but I think the negative impression that has resulted over the last few years has been due to two factors. One is the religious right, which takes a fairly strong anti-science position on many issues and is more closely identified with the Republican than Democratic Party; and secondly, the attitude of the Bush administration. The White House has been a very difficult administrator of federal science policy with making political decisions about scientific matters and not being able to create a long-term plan for how science ought to be supported. I think I would be very reluctant to say that the White House should write down and be allowed in a sense to legislate a long-term funding plan for science. But I do think they ought to have a plan, which the Congress can respond to. There isn't one, and this [demonstrates] very poor understanding, in my view, in the White House of how the science agencies work and what they contribute to the country.

Steve: Well, would you hope things will, let's say in—let's let another presidential administration go through, let's go to 2012. When the 2012 election is going on, where would you hope things were, as a result of whatever efforts we can make now?

Dr. Varmus: Well, there are two big issues. One is training and better education in sciences and one of the things—it's difficult to responding to in your question—is how we get the educational process to be more equitable, because so much of that goes on to[at the] state level. But really better training of science teachers, better pay for teachers, more investment in school infrastructure, building, science equipment—that's a huge challenge for the nation, in which we are clearly losing internationally just by every ranking; we do much less well than we should. The other issue is the financial support of science, and I think it is possible. We have shown we can do this in the past: to undertake a, to try to develop a position in both parties that supports modest but sustained growth of science budgets. We haven't really changed the proportion of our federal budget that goes to science over the last 30 or 40 years, and that's a mistake because science has got [a] lot more expense[ive and] has [a] lot more to offer. The opportunities have never been as great as they are now. We are increasingly technology based—whether it's the way in which we do in this podcast or the way in which we approach the treatment of cancer. And you know, we spend between one and two trillion dollars in this country on healthcare, yet we invest less than 2 percent of what we spend on healthcare and health research—no industry would operate that way.

Steve: I was thinking science is the goose that lays the golden eggs, but you got to feed the goose. So, I guess that's the bottom-line of this.

Dr. Varmus: No alchemy here! We can turn lead into gold. (Laughs)

Steve: Great to talk to you. Thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Dr. Varmus: Thank you.

Steve: For more on the Hamilton Project, go to www.hamiltonproject.org. There are links there that will take you to transcripts and videos of the forum that took place on December 5th.

Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories. Only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: A species of bat has a tongue that's longer than its entire body.

Story number 2: Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger is behind a new music video aimed at raising money for arthritis research.

Story number 3: Hair grows in neat, orderly rows, not in a random orientation.

Story number 4: Even after surgery to remove lung cancers, more than a third of smokers resume the habit within a year.

We will be back with the answer. But first—a major fossil find from Mongolia. It's the cover story of the issue of the journal Nature that officially comes out Thursday, the 14th. ("Hope that he is not Bullwinkle"” mimicking voice of flying squirrel)

No, it's not a flying squirrel. In fact, it's another kind of gliding mammal that predates all other known flying mammals by some 70 million years. The lead researcher is Jin Meng, and I spoke to him last week at his office at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York.

Steve: Dr. Meng, thanks for talking to us today.

Dr. Meng: Thank you very much.

Steve: A very exciting fossil find, tell us about the find and about your role in finding it.

Dr. Meng: Sure. This is a first discovery of the Mesozoic mammal, and it's a gliding mammal. So that's the first record of a mammal that can fly in the air, and we found that it was in [the] Mesozoic and the first record.

Steve: And Mesozoic, how long ago are we talking?

Dr. Meng: Well, Mesozoic, for this particular specimen—which we think is at least 135 million years old—it could be older, up to 165 million years old, depending on the dating data; because dating is kind of controversial about the rocks that contain these specimens.

Steve: But we are confident that at a minimum it's a 135 million years old.

Dr. Meng: That's certainly—that is the case that we are putting in the article. We sort of try to be a little conservative to not appreciably age too deep in history. I think 145 million years is older enough because earlier, the previous record of flight like[is] a fossil ba[t],nd and we know the earliest record is about 52 million years old.

Steve: The earliest bat.

Dr. Meng: Earliest of [a] bat, yeah—52!. So, this one just simply pushed that into record and to at least 70 million years deeper in history.

Steve: And what evidence do we have that this is indeed a mammal that could indeed fly?

Dr. Meng: It was kind of confusing; we thought as well maybe this is a pterosaurs—a flying reptile. Because we see this impression of this flying membrane; and look under microscope, you see all these[this] very dense fur on the surface of the impression. And then we figured out, well this got to be something that can fly. Then, we look at the dentition—usually dense where we identify the mammal, because a mammalian tooth is very typical, very characteristic. So, we looked at the teeth, but the teeth was so odd—we [had] never see[n] any Mesozoic mammal have a set of teeth like that; but if you compare [it] with anything else, that this is still a mammal['s] teeth. All th[ese]is morphologies—the teeth, the skull, the postcranial, of course this flying membrane—showed this is a brand new mammal. So, we actually established a new mammalian order for this animal.

Steve: From the time it was discovered until this publication, how many years have gone by?

Dr. Meng: One year.

Steve: That's pretty fast.

Dr. Meng: That's right. That's right, because the specimens was found, I think, I believe, at the end of last year. Until I went back to Beijing, the specimen was brought to the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, in Beijing. I went back there because I had the collaboration with them. I have been doing research with them all the time. So, I went to one of the colleagues' office and the specimens was on his desk, and he said that, "well look, we got some new specimens; and if this one of those, look and tell what it is"; and because we are in the middle of something, so I quickly looked at the specimens. I saw the teeth, the skull and teeth, and the skeleton—I think, it's something strange. At that time, I also saw the impression of the flying membrane, but I didn't have a chance to look at in detail. So, I said well I will come back to look at it again. So, I think the next day I asked him to bring the specimens to another office where they have those microscope[s] setup. I looked the specimen under the microscope and I saw—I found that this impression of these dense hairs, which is a very typical mammalian character—you have this body hair. So, at that point, I concluded this [has] got to be a gliding or flying mammal at that time; but still we feel it's, kind of, so odd. I guess, you know, it records so early, and that's 70 million years. You just kind of believe that. So, we are very cautious about that. So, we called another person. He actually is one of our co-authors, and he is an expert on pterosaurs, and he has been working on pterosaurs from same localities; and from that same localities, we have, you know, very small pterosaurs like a pigeon sized. So, we were all wondering whether this is a pterosaurs, but you know, when we look into the bone element, the teeth [and] everything, and the hair impression of course gives this is a mammal, not anything else. But it's such an odd mammal we have never seen that before.

Steve: What is the significance of the designation of a new order?

Dr. Meng: Well, in the first place, I think that twist gives us an idea [of]that how much we don't know about Mesozoic mammals, because a new order means that's a major branch, a major [class]Clade, or major group, of mammal, which is quite different from others. Like, you know, if you look into the living mammals, you have a dozen of orders like primates, like rodentia—all those groups—but usually you don't recognize a new order in the practice and study of the mammals, because it is not very easy to recognize a major group that is so different and so distinctive from other groups.

Steve: Very interesting. Dr. Meng thanks very much.

Dr. Meng: You're welcome. Thank you very much.

Steve: For more, go to www.amnh.org/science.

(mimicking mammalian voice:And here he is that master of misinformation, Mr. Know it all.)

Thank you.

Now, it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Speaking of flying mammals—one bat's tongue is longer than its body.

Story number 2: Kissinger makes music video for arthritis funding.

Story number 3: Hair grows in neat, orderly rows.

Story number 4: More than a third of lung cancer surgery patients start smoking again within a year.

Time’s up.

Story number 1 is true. The nectar bat—Anoura fistulata—has a tongue half again as long as its body. That's according to research published in last week's issue of Nature. The tongue, which the bat stores in its rib cage, appears to be adapted to feed on a particular flower that has long tubes.

Story number 4 is true. Thirty-seven percent of 154 lung cancer surgery patients in a new study were smoking again within a year. The study appears in the journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention. Most of the recidivist smokers were puffing again within two months.

Story number 3 is true. Hair grows in orderly rows. New research shows that in mice, a gene called frizzled 6 [that] controls the follicle angle to line the hairs up could make for a better free insulation than a random orientation; probably similar stuff goes on in us too. For more, see in Nikhil Swaminathan's article, "Why Hair Grows—or doesn't—All in a Row", at our Web site, www.sciam.com.

All of which means that story number 2 about Henry Kissinger in a music video for arthritis research is of course TOTALL.......Y BOGUS; however, this years Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, the creator of the Grameen bank that gives out micro-loans really has launched a music video aimed at raising money to build eye hospitals in Bangladesh. Yunus' Scientific American article on the Grameen Bank from November 1999 is available at our digital archive, www.sciamdigital.com.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. Write to us at podcast@sciam.com; check out news articles and science video news at the Web site, www.sciam.com; and the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Web sites mentioned on this episode include: www.sciam.com/podcast; http://www.sciam.com/news; http://www.sciamdigital.com; http://www.hamiltonproject.org; http://www.amnh.org/science; www.nature.com.

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