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News Release 01-040

Harold Varmus, Lewis Branscomb Are Honored With the Vannevar Bush Award

May 8, 2001

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The National Science Board (NSB) has named two renowned scientists to receive the Vannevar Bush Award for lifetime achievement in science and public service. Harold E. Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and a Nobel-prize holder for contributions to understanding the mechanisms of cancer, and Lewis M. Branscomb, a physicist, former NSB chair and one of the most compelling voices in science and technology policy, will receive the award May 23 at a Department of State-hosted awards dinner.

Varmus is currently president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, the nation's oldest and largest private institution for cancer research. No stranger to heading large organizations, Varmus joined Sloan-Kettering after directing for seven years the government's largest health-related research organization, the National Institutes of Health, through a major growth period during the 1990s.

"Harold Varmus is a national treasure," Rita Colwell, National Science Foundation (NSF) director said. "He is a Nobel Prize-winning researcher himself. Harold has opened many doors in education and has provided tremendous leadership to the nation's scientific community. He's a motivator. The nation's top scientists just seem to gravitate in his direction out of respect for his abilities and leadership. And he's a staunch supporter of fundamental research. His strong voice in this area has been welcome because it is often forgotten how much of medical research is dependent upon the results of basic research in the physical sciences."

As a professor of microbiology, Varmus shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1989 with Professor J. Michael Bishop, his then colleague at the University of California, San Francisco, for their work in retroviruses that led to an understanding of the genetic basis for cancer. Varmus and Bishop showed that cancer genes (oncogenes) can arise from normal cellular genes. The oncogenes begin as normal genes in the cell, but at some point, carcinogenic activity in the cell's environment activates the gene in a sequence that can lead to cancer.

In addition to reversing funding trends at NIH through his influence with Congress, Varmus helped alter a perceived skeptical public image about the positive aspects of biomedical research, successfully generated large investments in the Human Genome Project, revised the peer review process at the agency and placed a major emphasis on improving and expanding NIH-supported clinical research facilities nationwide.

Lewis Branscomb, professor emeritus in public policy and corporate management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is a physicist and former chairman of the National Science Board who pioneered the study of atomic and molecular negative ions and their role in the atmospheres of the earth and stars. He served four Presidents and has written many books and articles as a respected expert in science and technology policy and management of innovation and technology.

Branscomb joined the National Bureau of Standards (NBS - now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) in 1951 and made the first vacuum measurements of the photodetachment spectrum of a free negative ion, verifying the theory that the absorption of light by the negative hydrogen ion determines the surface temperature of the sun. He returned to NBS in 1969, appointed by President Nixon to head the agency.

Branscomb served three other presidents. President Johnson appointed him to the Science Advisory Committee and also to chair the Panel on Space Science and Technology during the Apollo mission to the moon. Branscomb was appointed to the National Science Board in 1979 by President Carter, and chaired the NSB from 1980-84. Under President Reagan, he was appointed a member of the National Productivity Advisory Committee and also chairman of the Subcommittee on Research, Development and Technological Innovation.

In the private sector, Branscomb served as Vice President and Chief Scientist at IBM, where he worked for 15 years from 1972 to 1986.

"I am especially pleased at receiving the Vannevar Bush Award because Dr. Bush was the epitome of the view that basic scientific research and useful applications of science and engineering are not only compatible, but essential to one another," Branscomb said. Vannevar Bush's seminal report, Science - The Endless Frontier, published in 1945, set the tone for the nation's future undertaking of publicly-funded fundamental research, and led to the creation in 1950 of the National Science Foundation, the independent government entity assigned to carry out much of this research through universities and non-profit institutions.

"Dr. Branscomb's is a figure of tremendous stature in U.S. science and technology policy," Eamon Kelly, current NSB chair, said. "His creativity and enthusiasm have catalyzed and energized the entire science policy community by initiating and coordinating the efforts of government, industry and academic sectors. Dr. Branscomb's lifetime achievements, record of public service, and his productivity far outpace even the most energetic and devoted leaders in science and technology."

The Vannevar Bush Award is presented to individuals who make outstanding contributions toward humanity and the nation through lifetime professional achievement and in public service activities in science and technology. Since 1980, when it was first presented, just 23 individuals have received the award.


Media Contacts
Bill Noxon, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

Program Contacts
Susan Fannoney, NSB, (703) 292-4518, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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