More Money Won’t Win the War on Cancer

A broken grant structure, turf wars, and an exodus of scientists for other professions are bigger barriers to progress than a lack of funding.
(USAG-Humphreys/flickr)

Forty-two years after President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act and declared the “war on cancer,” it’s virtually impossible to separate cancer from money—walks, bike rides and pink ribbons entice people to donate more and more. To question the need for more funding to help cancer patients seems almost sacrilege.

But that is what Clifton Leaf, a cancer survivor (diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in high school) and an editor at Fortune, asks in his book The Truth In Small Doses: Why We’re Losing The War on Cancer— and How to Win It: What if a lack of research funding isn’t really the problem? One reason we aren’t making faster progress against cancer, according to Leaf, is because the federal grant process often chases the brightest minds from academic labs, and for those who do stay, favors low-risk “little questions” over swinging for the fences.

“More money by itself is not going to solve anything,” Leaf said. “Let’s say we doubled the [National Institutes of Health] budget, that isn’t going to make the lives of researchers better.”

The problem, as Leaf sees it, is with the business of cancer research. Over the last decade or so, “doing science” has reached a crisis stage—a claim many in the cancer community agree with, even if they don’t quite see eye-to-eye with Leaf on all of his conclusions.

For starters, because the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) funding process has become so protracted and tedious, academic scientists spend too much time worrying about money— thinking about grants, reviewing grants, and finally, managing and administering their active grants in the lab. And all of that is time not spent actually doing cancer research. There’s also, according to Leaf, a mental cost for scientists, in the “hovering uncertainty” that follows even the most seasoned investigators “with stellar resumes and long histories of grant success” when it comes to the future of their work and their laboratories. For example, while the NIH’s budget doubled during the Clinton years, grant applications also doubled, rising from 24,000 in 1998 to nearly 50,000 in 2007, meaning the field was just as competitive from the researcher’s point of view.

“If you are a midcareer investigator,” explained Dr. Otis Brawley, the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, “you spend up to half of your time trying to get funding. And that’s a real problem.” 

It makes sense for businesses and non-profits to invest significant amounts of time in funding.  But academic cancer research is about fighting a disease, not turning a profit or sustaining a charitable mission. We would never, for instance, expect a fire or police department to spend half its time pitching the government for funding—while still fighting fires and saving lives— just to keep its doors open.

To make matter worse, according to Brawley, chances are, the scientists who think outside of the established paradigm aren’t going to get money. As he puts it, the NIH and National Cancer Institute (NCI) are currently “in the business of risk avoidance.”

“The pipeline, or percentage of projects funded, is [less than] 9 percent by the end of this fiscal year for the NIH and NCI, meaning researchers have less than a 1 out of 10 shot at getting their grant proposal through,” Brawley said. And nobody wants to be accused of taking a big risk and losing. So they end up funding the 9 or 10 percent [of projects] that they know are going to end up being successful.”

And those lucky 9 or 10 percent of scientists usually can’t establish independence until sometime in their forties— a problem, Leaf says, “because once you have the freedom and the money to take big risks, you’re likely past your creative prime.”  Drawing on the idea that scientists in their twenties and thirties may be the most innovative Leaf argues that too many promising scientists spend their best years in “post-doc purgatory,” trying to get tenure track positions.

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Jacoba Urist is a contributing journalist for NBC News, where she covers health, education, and gender issues. More

She received her JD and LL.M in taxation from New York University School of Law and a Masters in Public Policy from The Johns Hopkins Institute For Health and Social Policy. She has also written for Time, Newsweek/TheDailyBeast, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

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