Nearly halfway through his prepared remarks for his 2016 State of the Union address to Congress, President Obama announced a new national effort to eliminate the life-threatening conditions of abnormally growing cells, which are collectively known as cancer. In charge of this new cancer moonshot, as the President puts it, is Vice President Joe Biden. Vice President Biden already recently worked to secure about $264 million in funding for the National Cancer Institute in a Congressional spending bill passed in December. This mission to defeat cancer will no doubt be a labor of love and deep commitment for the Vice President given that his son Beau Biden lost his battle with brain cancer in May 2016.
The U.S. government already spends about $5 billion each year on funding research related to treating and curing cancer, but Obama’s recent remarks seem to indicate that this committed funding level will increase in the coming months. Such an increased level of commitment to eradicate what is truly a terribly disease should be roundly applauded by the left, the right and everyone in between. Surprisingly, this new cancer research initiative has not been well received by every science and tech publication, which has printed an opinion on the matter. For instance, an article published by online tech publication Ars Technica argued that funding a new cancer moonshot devoted to cancer is “a terrible idea,” citing issues like the money already being invested by the government and past government-funded failures devoted to curing cancer.
Over the years it has not been uncommon for the pages of IPWatchdog.com to disagree with Ars Technica. The views expressed on matters of patent policy by Ars Technica generally do little more than parrot the desires and wishes of the Silicon Valley elite companies that want to dismantle the patent system for their own advantage. Ars Technica has largely ignored the vital role innovators and patents have played in the American economy. But to read Ars Technica say it is a terrible idea to devote increased funding in order to eradicate cancer is astonishing on many levels.
I have to ask the author of this Ars Technica article, Jonathan Gitlin, have you ever held anyone you loved as they lay dying of cancer? I have. In May 2013, I lost my best friend in this world to this horrible disease— my mother. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her, that I don’t wish for one more conversation or just a little more time. So for anyone to call this “a terrible idea” is nothing short of cruel, and frankly incredibly stupid. The lack of empathy is bewildering. The Ars Technica article is insulting, and wrong, on so many levels.
Gitlin rationalizes that we do not need any more money for cancer because it is no longer the leading killer in the United States. He writes:
Cancer isn’t even the leading cause of death in US! Almost twice as many die each year from heart disease, stroke, or lung disease, yet the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute gets $2 billion a year less than NCI.
He further explains that great strides have been made with respect to treatments and cures, which is true. Of course, it is also true that people are dying and they are dying horrible deaths. With the victories and advances that have been made over the last generation it is no longer fanciful to dream of a day when cancer can become eradicated. So why is it a terrible idea to devote more resources on a so-called cancer moonshot to attempt to once and for all put an end to this scourge?
Gitlin, attempting to seem reasonable, acknowledges what he must, that lofty scientific goals have lead to truly great things. He writes:
Don’t get me wrong. Done correctly, history shows that lofty scientific and engineering challenges can work. The actual moonshot for example, or the Human Genome Project. Both of those had one thing in common: a clear and well-defined goal at the beginning. “Before 1970, fly someone to the Moon and return them safely.” “Sequence the entire human genome.”
Nebulous concepts like “end all cancer” get good applause—curing all cancers is right up there with sunshine and puppies.
Gitlin, a former policy worker at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and current automotive editor for Ars Technica, has an interesting idea about what is a clear, well-defined goal. Save for a minute why Ars Technica has an automotive editor writing about cancer research and funding of research, but he writes in a rather condescending way, and without any explanation as if it is self evident, that the statement “fly someone to the moon by 1970” is clear but “cure cancer” is somehow unclear. So self assured in his ignorance is he that he feels comfortable mocking President Obama by basically saying the President might as well be blowing sunshine. Remarkably condescending, remarkably ignorant, remarkably wrong.
Gitlin must also check his history. When President Kennedy announced that he wanted a man on the moon by the end of the decade there were little, if any, specifics. The goal of putting a man on the moon lead to numerous scientific challenges and countless hurdles that could never have been imagined, all of which were overcome. There was no grand outline at the time for the accomplishments made toward the lunar landing by Project Gemini, Project Mercury and Project Apollo. But there was a clear mandate that America had to beat the USSR in this area of technology. See A NASA Journey to Nowhere.
To better critique what President Obama is trying to do with this new cancer initiative, maybe it is best for us to start with the language of his commitment to increasing research funds, specifically his use of that word ‘moonshot.’ Moonshot essentially means, “the launching of a spacecraft to the moon,” but the word itself harkens back to one of the prouder eras of American research and development. On May 25th, 1961, then-President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the joint houses of Congress in which he announced that the United States should commit itself to landing a man on the moon within the decade. In that speech, Kennedy indicated that this would take a widespread effort: “In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.” This initiative to put a man on the moon would be echoed in other Kennedy speeches, including his 1962 State of the Union, where he said that the objective of putting a man on the moon was to “develop in a new frontier of science, commerce and cooperation, the position of the United States and the Free World.” It’s important to note that Kennedy’s push to put a man on the moon was largely spurred by the Soviet Union beating America to space with Yuri Gagarin’s spacewalk in April 1961.
Although he was perhaps a bit more forthcoming with the amount to be spent on space exploration, President Kennedy did not give America much more than a deadline to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Research sponsored by the U.S. government in the pursuit of a lunar landing led to an incredible array of scientific developments in flame-retardant fabrics, microalgae nutritional supplements and safe drinking water has absolutely made life better for humans here on Earth, all of which were unintended payoffs of space exploration research. The Mars mission, which will have to figure out how to keep humans alive in some of the harshest conditions they’ve experienced, will undoubtedly do the same.
So what does space travel have to do with cancer research? For one, the accomplishment of either requires the pursuit of a scientific unknown. We didn’t know how to put a man on the moon in 1961, but we knew that we had to beat the Soviets there. In a somewhat similar way, we know that the answer to ending the threat of more than 100 types of cancer from which humans can suffer will take a complex solution. Much like making it to the surface of the moon, we know that we have to solve this problem. The difference, however, is thanks to decades of cancer research we will not be starting this race flat footed. Many cancers have extremely high cure rates if they are detected early, and even some Stage IV cancers can be beaten. Every day advances are made, and it is no longer crazy to think that at some point during our lifetime we could see headlines proclaim that cancer has been defeated.
This type of massive spending initiative in order to confront a major problem affecting our world is not without precedent. Former President George W. Bush increased U.S. aid to Africa by 640 percent during his administration in an effort to address public health issues, contributing more than $5 billion per year to the continent, more than any previous U.S. president. As a result, America earned a spot in the hearts of many citizens from that continent, according to research from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Solving one of the world’s greatest diseases would similarly go a long way in improving America’s stature in the larger world around it, as well as improving the lives of virtually everyone. Cancer touches us all, whether individually or by and through those that we love. How could it ever be a terrible thing to invest to stop such a terrible disease?
There’s no reason to decry a cancer moonshot that is dedicated to preventing one of the cruelest diseases known to man. It would be right to suggest that the government apply its funding in a strategic manner and not spend recklessly. But that’s another area where devoting extra resources to curing cancer makes sense: unlike space exploration, which essentially created a new industry, there’s already a healthy amount of American research devoted to cancer, as even Gitlin himself notes.
This new initiative in funding cancer research also gives us an opportunity to laud the effects of legislation, which, for 35 years, has enabled academic research in medicine and other fields to be commercially developed for consumers. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, as many readers are likely aware, established a legal path by which federally funded research into basic science at academic institutions could be spun off for the consumer market. Since the Act was passed into law there have been 153 drugs, which have benefited patients all over the world after having been developed at university research labs; prior to Bayh-Dole, there were zero. These include treatments for breast cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and infections incurred during the course of cancer treatment, to name but a few.
Given Ars Technica’s reliable anti-patent stance of virtually every issue one has to wonder whether publishing an article that proclaims attempts to cure cancer as “a terrible idea” aren’t just cruel per se, but cruel in the name of staying true to their hatred of patents. Over the last 35 years many revolutionary innovations have been discovered thanks to federally sponsored funding and commercialized as the result of Bayh-Dole. Of course, so many elites hate Bayh-Dole and would rather no innovation come from universities into the market for use by society, which is exactly what happened prior to passage of Bayh-Dole. The calls to return to laws and policy in existence when no federally sponsored research was commercialized is rather clueless, and nearly as cruel as standing in the way of increasing cancer research. After all, repealing Bayh-Dole would have a more deleterious effect.
We should be grateful that the American intellectual property landscape already has the infrastructure in place to make such a cancer moonshot not only possible but likely successful. Critiques like the one from Ars Technica are right only to the extent they say that increased federal funding for research shouldn’t mean throwing money all over the place, but who is suggesting that?
There is already an infrastructure in place, both on the public side and on the private side with countless foundations supporting cancer research, some even donating 100% of every dollar raised, such as The Jimmy V Foundation. So if Gitlin thinks NIH cannot efficiently administer additional grants perhaps he would have been better served to identify what could be done with additional financial resources, rather than call this important endeavor a terrible idea as if he is the arbiter of all ideas that are good. I assure you there are plenty of organizations and researchers doing excellent work that could use additional funding.
Simply stated, there is no reason to understate what is currently one of the biggest challenges of our time. Bullish statements don’t always make good policy, but this cancer moonshot initiative could inspire the next generation of scientists and medical researchers while providing additional funding immediately to engage in ever more research. Calling that a terrible idea is nothing short of breathtakingly stupid.