Forget hype — science is still what works

Recent criticisms from the NBCC about progress toward a cure for cancer really miss the point.

Anant Naik

The National Breast Cancer Coalition recently spoke out against the apparent inefficiencies of researching a cure for breast cancer. The coalition’s board members were disgruntled that breast cancer remains a leading cause of death among women, despite the money that people have spent researching a cure.

The NBCC said in a National Public Radio interview that it wants a more streamlined and effective approach to research. This means the organization will only fund projects that fall under its umbrella approach to research — in essence, the move gives funders the power to choose which research projects occur.

There is no doubt that this decision has good intentions. However, it’s important to understand that there isn’t an easy way around a slow research process. Science takes time, and altering the process will lead to problems down the road.

The new change in funding won’t affect the research process. Instead, it will only fund scientists who are able to associate themselves with the NBCC’s jargon.

First, it’s important to put into perspective the importance of goals in the research community. Goals have incredible value, but it’s absurd to say scientists researching breast cancer have no unified goal simply because research projects haven’t yielded a cure. The ultimate goal is curing breast cancer, but scientists must tackle many aspects of the disease.

The NBCC claims that scientists today aren’t working toward one clear goal. That indirectly discounts much of the work done by the scientific community. Implicitly, everyone’s goal is to find a solution to breast cancer. Putting that on a document with bold cursive script isn’t going to change anything.

Second, it’s not so easy to cure breast cancer. Research and science aren’t sprints that people can complete within a deadline. Instead, they’re comparable to marathons. To make sure that a treatment works, you have to conduct hundreds of trials. To skip this process could release a faulty treatment that might even hurt people in the long run.

The scientific method involves a specific type of reasoning, and an attempt to change that reasoning is very dangerous. There’s still a lot we don’t know about cancer. This makes it difficult to centralize the cure effort, because before hunting for a cure, there’s a lot of learning to be done.

Because scientists realize this, they will not procedurally change their approach toward experimenting simply because of the NBCC’s new funding requirements. In order to gain funding, however, they may adopt the NBCC’s jargon.

Ultimately, I don’t think the NBCC’s decision has any impact on research. The organization’s research branch has only 17 researchers, and thus it can’t change much.

If anything, the new funding rules limit the flow of money going into labs. I speculate that many uninformed people will stand against scientists after they see the new funding requirements, even though they both are on the same side fighting one common enemy. It will seem like an implicit war between scientists and people who advocate for a cure, though there is none. And in this war, both sides will lose.