The 10 Most Influential People in Science

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

By Susan Kruglinski, Marion Long|Wednesday, November 26, 2008

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, their groundbreaking philanthropic organization. Instead of filing for government-compliant not-for-profit status, (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 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 to redistribute the funds anew when loans are repaid.” Currently focused on an array of initiatives in energy, public health, and global poverty, 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—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.

J. Craig Venter; Founder, J. Craig Venter Institute: Revolutionizing the Life Sciences
If audacity is what it takes to get things done, J. Craig Venter is happy to bring a truckload to the lab. Forget traditional collaboration and the slow building of data. Venter has famously started his own companies and plowed ahead in a way that has unnerved the scientific establishment. That is how he became more famous for deciphering the human genome than the international army of scientists who shared the achievement, how he hopes to understand every microbe in the ocean (through his Global Ocean Sampling Expedition), and how he plans to create artificial life. With his successes, Venter now inspires everyone from Nobel laureates to untenured professors to launch start-ups, streamlining the path to discovery and racking up profits along the way.

“Craig’s career is defined by his creativity, fearlessness, and disregard for traditional thought,” says Huntington F. Willard, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy. “Ultimately, beyond his string of firsts, his influence will be marked by what my students sense immediately in hearing about his work: It’s good to be daring and to challenge the status quo.”

“Craig is not afraid to dream and think big, very big,” says Jay Keasling, founding director of the synthetic biology department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Many of us suffer from constraints in our thinking, particularly on the grand scale. Craig does not suffer these limitations. What is even more impressive is that he can actually accomplish what he dreams.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson; Director, Hayden Planetarium: Taking Science to the People

There may never be another Carl Sagan, but if anyone can take up the mantle as a science popularizer, it is Neil deGrasse Tyson. In fact, Sagan had personally tried to recruit a high-school-age Tyson to attend his home base, Cornell University. Tyson chose to go to Harvard instead but was influenced by Sagan nevertheless, developing an ability to lure a massive audience into the world of science through his sense of excitement. Besides best-selling books, including The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, Tyson has become a familiar face on TV, hosting NOVA ScienceNOW and the hit miniseries Origins, as well as goofing around on The Daily Show.

Unafraid of controversy in his role as director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, Tyson insisted that the museum deny Pluto planetary status years before the scientific establishment caught up with the idea. George W. Bush has sought his input. An asteroid was named in his honor. And, oh yes, People magazine named him “Sexiest Astro­physicist Alive.”

Carl would be proud. Indeed, Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, a science popularizer in her own right, says of Tyson: “I know of no living scientist who connects as well with people lacking prior inclination toward matters scientific. I’ve seen them come away from his talks both enchanted and curious about science and nature. As Carl did, Neil combines rigorous skepticism with wonder, never one at the expense of the other.”

Barbara Mikulski; U.S. Senator, D-Maryland: Washington’s Science Advocate

When it comes to progress in science, funding from government is often the grease we need most. That’s why so many scientists are glad to have Barbara Mikulski on their side. As chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, the Maryland senator has fought for federal science funding through the NIH, the National Science Foundation, and others. She has also championed the space program and stem cell research in the United States.

“Senator Mikulski knows that science and technology grow our economy and contribute to our national security,” says Charles Bennett, principal investigator for the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a NASA Explorer mission that produced an image of the oldest light in the universe. “She’s at the forefront of enabling innovation. When it comes to science and technology, she really gets it.”

Bill Gates; Founder, Microsoft: Health for Developing Nations

After Bill Gates laid the track for the PC railroad, the explosion of personal computing pulled people together as never before. This shift allowed Gates to see more clearly those stuck at the edges. Crediting his billionaire friend Warren Buffett with inspiring him by example, Gates embraced philanthropy. Enter the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the wealthiest charitable organization on the planet. A focus of the foundation is public health, especially in the developing world, and with this reach Bill Gates has become as much a force as some of the largest government health institutions.

The Gates Foundation brings treatment to the indigent and funds lifesaving research, including development of new tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS vaccines.

“Because of Gates’s generosity, the world is following,” says Stephen Blount, director of the Coordinating Office for Global Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Gates’s global health projects have been so compelling, Blount says, that some of the most senior people at the CDC have taken positions at the Gates Foundation after their retirement. Following Gates’s lead, the top guns of industry now regularly collaborate with the most important institutions of government, streamlining a process that is often slowed by red tape.

Michael Griffin; Administrator of NASA: Charting a Course Through Space

If you’re wondering how we might catch up with the vision that guided the starship Enterprise, just ask NASA administrator Michael Griffin about his plans. “For me the single overarching goal of human spaceflight is the human settlement of the solar system and eventually beyond,” Griffin told Congress in 2003. He intends to use the moon as a base camp for human exploration of Mars and hopes to mine resources and set up shop in both locations.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary leadership,” says Michael Weiss, deputy manager of the Hubble Space Telescope Program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “This best captures the spirit of Michael Griffin, who had the courage to resurrect the last shuttle mission to Hubble in the aftermath of the tragic Columbia accident and firmly believed the engineers would find a way to mitigate the additional risk.”

“Griffin took the leadership of NASA in difficult times—the shuttle was aging, the space station was boring, the budget was flat, and there were no real goals,” Mars scientist Phil Christensen adds. “His single purpose has been to restore NASA’s ability to inspire by setting lofty goals and resurrecting the capability to achieve those goals. His primary focus has been to get humans back doing what they should do in space—explore.”

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