Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Why government-funded cancer research is dangerously unlike the Manhattan Project

Jerry Stratton, October 12, 2016

Nagasaki mushroom cloud

Congratulations! Your cancer has been destroyed.

One of the problems that came to light with the Epipen scandal is that companies are allowed to take taxpayer money for research without making the results of their research open and free for use by all.1 No government-funded research should be hidden from the public. If a researcher wants to hide their data sets, they should not take taxpayer money. And it isn’t just health care companies doing this—academic researchers do it all the time, too.

Maintaining a strong separation between public and private spheres is a very conservative idea, and a vitally important one for technological advancement, such as improving medicine. It’s part of what President Eisenhower meant when he warned us against the domination of the nation’s scholars by a scientific-technological elite:

A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government… Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity… The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

The massive amount of money that government can throw at a problem makes it very difficult for researchers to look at solutions that compete with what government bureaucrats think is the right path. It’s very difficult to follow an innovative path if it means foregoing hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in grants. The least we can do to overcome that tendency for government funding to encourage monopolies in both the market and in research is make sure that government funding does not result in government-created monopolies on the results of the research funded.

There’s a line of thought, from those who seem to like to organize civilian life as if it were the military, that says, we were willing to use government funding to create nuclear weapons, so why not use it to create a cure for cancer? But there is a serious flaw with that reasoning: the science for nuclear weapons had already been solved by the time the Manhattan Project started. What was left was the engineering of a specific manifestation of what we already knew from the science.

We already knew that the way to make a bomb was to create a critical mass. We also already knew that one way to create a critical mass was to bring two non-critical masses together such that a critical mass was formed.2 We knew that another way to achieve critical mass was to compress a non-critical mass until it became dense enough to become a critical mass.3

We were so sure of the science that we didn’t even bother to test the Little Boy design. Fat Boy, being more complicated, was tested in the famous Trinity explosion at Alamogordo.

We tested it once.

There is no as-yet untested cure for cancer that we are so sure about that we would only need to test it once or even zero times before we use it on humans. We don’t yet know enough of the science behind cancer to know how to even start a cure. And by the time we do, it will probably not require a massive influx of cash to engineer an actual cure from that knowledge.4

Also, and this so obvious that only the left could believe the opposite, there is no mass market for nuclear weapons. Despite what we see in bad remakes of good books, there is no cabal of businessmen clamoring to sell H-bombs at the local Safeway. If we wanted nuclear weapons to end World War II, the only way to get them was through government intervention.

There are a lot of people who want cancer cures for a lot of different kinds of cancers.

The latest incarnation of this adds a “cancer moonshot” analogy to the Manhattan Project analogy5, but it has the same problems as an analogy: we already knew the science of getting to the moon. We needed to solve the engineering. Further, while getting to the moon was an amazing feat, our relegating space travel to the government has set space travel back decades. Only recently have we allowed private organizations to compete to get to space, and already we’ve seen some impressive accomplishments; until this year, even attempting to land on the moon was illegal, and for all but one company, it still is.

The free market always works better at creating what individuals want, such as medicine, and sucks at creating what nobody wants, such as bombs that will destroy the world. Left to the market, we would never have built nuclear weapons. Left to the market, we will get cures for cancer, and those cures will be better and arrive faster the less government gets involved.

Further, we will arrive at those cures using less money, which is extremely important because not only are there multiple kinds of cancer, there are multiple kinds of diseases in general. Every resource that we overspend on one disease means more people die of the others. That problem is what the free market is best at solving: directing non-infinite resources to near-infinite problems to please—in this case, save—the most people the fastest. It is also exactly the problem that government is worst at: choosing the right path among many paths when no one individual has sufficient knowledge to know which path is best and lobbyists are crying for other people’s money to be spent on them first. Remember: when a private company finds a solution, that’s when the money starts rolling in. When a government agency’s “Moonshot” finds a solution, that’s when the money stops rolling in. The incentives are all wrong.

The cancer moonshot hasn’t even started yet and already some researchers are lobbying to shift its focus from curing cancer to social engineering:

…Gerson would also like to see more scientists take on less flashy issues, such as prevention. “How do we get people to stop smoking?” he says. “We’re not doing it well.”

The panel did acknowledge the importance of prevention. For instance, the report notes low rates of adoption for the human papillomavirus vaccine, which protects against the virus that causes cervical and other cancers, and for screwing for colorectal cancer, or CRC. “If we understood better the reasons these proven cancer prevention strategies are not being widely used and how we could increase uptake,” the report states, “we could reduce deaths due to cervical cancer by 90 percent, CRC by up to 70 percent and lung cancer by as much as 95 percent.” The authors also note that many people carry inherited genetic risks for cancer and don’t know it; improved screening for such genetic predisposition might save lives.

Government already has a heavy hand in anti-tobacco advertising and in vaccine, screening, and other medical prevention advertising, because it’s an easy way to spend money and to divert money to cronies. It won’t be hard to lobby congress, the White House, and the bureaucrats at the project to add these functions to the project. They’re not even necessarily bad ideas. But they’re completely at odds with the moonshot or Manhattan Project idea, because they mean solving not just cancer but human psychology. Adding solving human psychology to the project will turn it from a cancer moonshot to a never-ending lobbyist’s moneyshot—and one that doesn’t ever let the money stop by reaching its objective.

In response to The plexiglass highway: Government bureaucracies can cause anything to fail, even progress.

  1. Note that I did not find any evidence, contra the meme, that the Epipen itself was created from research funded from the government.

  2. This eventually took the form of the Little Boy bomb that sent a ring of non-critical mass uranium-235 onto a cylinder of non-critical mass such that the total became a critical mass.

  3. This was the Fat Boy bomb, which surrounded a sphere of plutonium-239 with explosives; when the explosives went off, they compressed the plutonium sphere into a critical mass at a new, higher density.

  4. It’s possible that we will already have the engineering done, using tools such as CRISPR and Cas9.

  5. Vice President Biden has used both analogies this year.

  1. <- Research capture