The Sciences

The 10 Most Influential People in Science

The world-changing minds who move science from theory to action.

By Susan Kruglinski, Marion LongNov 25, 2008 6:00 PM

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Larry Page & Sergey Brin; Cofounders, Google: Technological and Moral Vision How would we find out where our high school crush is working, 20 years after we last saw him, without the inventors of Google? But Google brings the world much more than cyberstalking: It allows us, second grader and Ph.D. alike, to mine information, expand our ideas about a subject, look up scholarly writings via Google Scholar, and even visually explore every inch of our planet with Google Earth. But Google creators Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted more and took another leap forward with Google.org, their groundbreaking philanthropic organization. Instead of filing for government-compliant not-for-profit status, Google.org (unlike most dot-orgs) is happy to solve problems in the “for profit” mode.

According to David Vise, a Pulitzer Prize–winning business journalist and author of The Google Story: Inside the Hottest Business, Media and Technology Success of Our Time, Brin and Page hope the importance of Google.org may someday eclipse that of Google itself. “To get more bang for the buck,” Vise told us, “they have adopted a hybrid model that goes beyond charitable giving to embrace self-sustaining projects—think microlending—that can be profitable. In addition to seeding small businesses and putting them on a more market-oriented footing, this positions Google.org to redistribute the funds anew when loans are repaid.” Currently focused on an array of initiatives in energy, public health, and global poverty, Google.org tapped Larry Brilliant, a doctor specializing in preventive medicine and public health and the former CEO of two public companies, to serve as its executive director.

Brilliant, founder of both the Seva Foundation, which works around the world to cure and prevent blindness, and the pioneering virtual community the WELL, says the Google duo are not just “technological visionaries” but also “moral and structural visionaries. The creation of Google.org—a new way to do good in the world with profits from a technology company—could not have happened if Larry and Sergey had not conceived it prior to Google’s success,” Brilliant says. “After the IPO, it would have been too late. In a way, they foresaw the future. Similar things can be said about the way they push the boundaries of renewable energy, organization structures, the way they build buildings,” Brilliant adds. “Heck, these guys are computer geeks, but they are also moral prodigies, and that may well outlast their other legacies. Their ethical commitments inspired me to come to Google to work with them.” Arthur Caplan; Bioethicist, University of Pennsylvania: Navigating the Minefield of Bioethics Remember when in vitro fertilization, which has produced millions of babies, was controversial? Today’s medical breakthroughs, from genetically engineering ani­mals to rewiring the human brain, pose moral and social dilemmas every bit as divisive, providing grist for Arthur Caplan as he weighs in on the future of science.

Caplan has sorted through the ethical traps of science for the United Nations, the National Institutes of Health, the president of the United States, and the Olympics and has written or edited more than 30 books and 500 articles on ethics in biomedicine. He has guided us through such issues as the organ donor market (he opposed the sale of kidneys to the highest bidder), the Terri Schiavo case (he opposed government intervention to keep her alive), and the stem cell wars (he supports embryonic stem cell research). Although he sometimes loses battles against politicians, he often succeeds in swaying public opinion, which in the end may be his proudest achievement.

Caplan has played a singular role in “democratizing bioethics,” says James Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “His tireless work translating philosophical debates into understandable ideas, along with his being accessible to the media, has helped millions of people around the world develop more informed opinions about health care and biotechnology. As a champion of accountable government regulation, universal health care, and individual liberty, he has applied the values of the Enlightenment to the 21st century.”

James Hansen; Climatologist and Director, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies: Fighting Global Warming Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for explaining global warming to the world, but James Hansen was the one who explained climate change to Al Gore.

Back in 1981, Hansen, a NASA climatol­ogist, was already sounding the alarm: Cli­mate change would accelerate more quickly than originally calculated. By the time Bill Clinton and Gore were in office, Hansen was writing press releases about the damage of greenhouse gases that had the administration breaking a sweat. Under the influence of George W. Bush, politicians were so discomfited by his reports, Hansen claims, that they were censored outright. Yet Hansen became a science adviser to Gore when the ex-V.P. took the word to the street, and many now consider him Gore’s mentor. In the wake of Hansen’s original clarion call, reversing the warming trend has become a mainstream movement, and an entire sector of science has received a flood of funding.

“Hansen’s computer modeling allowed him to say unequivocally in the spring of 1988 that humans were heating the planet and that it was going to be a serious problem,” comments environmentalist Bill McKibben of Middlebury College. “He has always been willing to say out loud, in public, and without endless hedging, what his scientific work means for the planet.”

Harold Varmus; Former Director, National Institutes of Health: Champion of Open Access Nobel laureate Harold Varmus was one of the driving forces of medical research even before he tried to revolutionize the way scientists do their work. In the 1970s Varmus and his colleague Michael Bishop discovered the cellular origin of retroviral genes that turn cancerous, launching the modern era of cancer research.

In the Clinton administration, Varmus led the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and transformed it into a biomedical powerhouse. “As director of NIH, Harold cultivated bipartisan support of biomedical research,” Bishop recalls, “and sound science was always at the heart of the agenda.”

Varmus’s latest challenge has been an attempt to overhaul the system of publishing research in journals so that all papers are freely available on the Internet—instead of only by expensive subscription. This allows researchers at any level of income, in any part of the world, to build on the body of knowledge. The manifestation of Varmus’s effort, the Public Library of Science and its roster of academic publications, has become one of the most cited sources in academic research and has inspired others worldwide to follow its lead.

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