Scientific opposition to the war on cancer

On December 9, 1969 the Washington Post ran a full-page ad that began

Mr. Nixon: You can cure cancer.

If America could put a man on the moon, she should be able to cure cancer. And why not? Well, because cancer research isn’t rocket science. (Actually, rocket science isn’t science; it’s engineering.) The science necessary to put a man on the moon was well known; the science necessary to cure cancer was not.

President Nixon was eager to comply with the request for massive funding for cancer research. However, many scientists were opposed to the idea. Cancer researcher Sol Spiegelman, for example, believed such a push was premature.

An all-out effort at this time would be like trying to land a man on the moon without knowing Newton’s laws of gravity.

James Watson warned

… we must reject the notion that we will be lucky. … Instead we will be witnessing a massive expansion of well-intentioned mediocrity.

How many scientists today would argue against a funding increase for their area of study?

Quotes taken from Emperor of all Maladies

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12 thoughts on “Scientific opposition to the war on cancer

  1. The problem with this kind of funding is probably that it overemphasizes a certain type of research. From this perspective, I could imagine arguing against such a funding increase in my own field but wouldn’t reject money for basic research.

  2. Look at what happened in Physics after its funding surge in the seventies. It killed the field.

    A sudden surge in funding is not a good thing. You need long term stability.

  3. How many scientists today would argue against a funding increase for their area of study?

    Mm-hmmm, mm-hmmm… One can become a big fish in a small pond by self-growth, or removing the other big fish, or shrinking the pond. Be assured, there would be many scientists who would argue for reduced funding to their area of work, so long as they could (in their own private moments) convince themselves that they would win the resulting competition.

  4. What big engineering challenges do you think are out there?

    I have doubts about Fusion
    ‘The December 17, 1979 issue of Newsweek reported that the Department of Energy was boosting research spending on fusion energy reactors based on a scientific consensus that the break-even point—that a fusion reactor would produce more energy than it consumes—could be passed within five years.’

    How about a trip to Mars? Eradicating various diseases at this point would seem to be nearly an engineering challenge.

    What big engineering project would you recommend if Obama asked you for a new manhattan or apollo type project?

  5. At the end of the day, we need to remember that scientists are human and are trying to make a living in a competitive capitalist economy. Thus, often the best product is not the best solution.

  6. @Brett

    scientists are human and are trying to make a living in a competitive capitalist economy

    And thus, we must be acutely aware of the effect that incentives may have on them.

  7. One issue here, which we are beginning to see, is that cancer is not a thing. It’s a descriptive term for a collection of different things which share some common symptoms.

    Another issue might be professional ethics. Medical professionals typically adhere to rather strong codes of ethics. The work can be depressing and unpleasant and it takes a certain kind of personality to want to be there in the first place.

    I also seem to remember that at one time policy was that something (I think cancer, but I could easily be mis-remembering) is not curable, only treatable. People that adhere to this mode of thinking might be reluctant to change their minds. And if they had a strong intuition about the issue that reluctance might be serious.

  8. @rdm

    Medical professionals typically adhere to rather strong codes of ethics.

    Medical research is subject to much red tape, but I do not think that the life of the medical researchers, at least the principal investigators, is particularly difficult. For one thing, they enjoy almost infinite funding compared to other researchers. They also have a very high social status.

    So recruiting the very best (hardworking and smart) people should not be a problem.

  9. Oh, certainly, we reward our medical people well. And, in part, that’s written into the law. In some ways it’s getting out of hand (what with national budget, and mandatory insurance — and we often confuse the issues of “health” and “medicine” — everyone needs to be responsible for their own health but self medication is a bad thing, so clearly medicine must be a different topic from health care).

    But, anyways, medical professionals are still dealing with dying people, and issues which can cause them to die.

  10. I remember reading Watson’s book of advice to young(er) people / autobiography “Avoid Boring People”, and I remember him talking about the period in his life when the War on Cancer was declared.

    His broad argument was that the molecular and genetic roots of cancer were not understood, and that the basic research into cellular biology that needed to be done should get the bulk of administered funding, as opposed to building more cancer hospitals that would deploy the then-standard treatments. He referred to that as (paraphrase) “building more pretty places for people to die in”. I’m not sure I’d say he was arguing against more gov’t money, per se, but that he was making statements about how that money should be allocated. Less on figuring out how pomegranates and bad sleep habits and radiation before / after surgery subtly influence cancer outcomes, and more on figuring out what it is that IGF-2 does and how it gets turned on and off.

    I wouldn’t say he was arguing against

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