Pouring Money Down the Federal Research Rat Hole

Opponents and supporters of medical research involving embryonic stem cells may not agree on the ethics of embryo destruction, but they should be able to find common ground — albeit for different reasons — on another point: The federal government's role in the research should be reconsidered.

Supporters desperately hope federal funding of the research will produce cures for many diseases. But before they get too excited, they should note the reality of federally funded medical research. Consider the two most prominent federal programs of the last 30 years – the more than $90 billion spent on cancer and AIDS research.

President Nixon declared a "war on cancer" in 1971 and launched a $42 billion spending spree. What has 30 years and $42 billion produced? Not much, according to the University of Chicago's Dr. John Bailar.

Bailar reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1986 and again in 1997 on the progress in cancer research. In 1986, Bailar concluded that "some 35 years of intense effort focused largely on improving treatment must be judged a qualified failure."

In 1997, Bailar added, "Now, with 12 more years of data and experience, we see little reason to change that conclusion, though this assessment must be tempered by the recognition of some areas of important progress, [including childhood cancer, Hodgkin's disease, and a better understanding of cancer]."

Bailar concluded, "Though these benefits must not be discounted, their effects on overall mortality due to cancer have been largely disappointing."

What's the problem? It's not that cancer cures are temporarily beyond our capability, or even that cancer cannot be conquered. The problem is that as long as the feds run the research, we won't know what the true prospects for a cancer cure are. The federal medical research bureaucracy won't give us a straightforward assessment.

Richard Klausner, the director of the National Cancer Institute, could only respond to Bailar's article by calling him a "defeatist" and advocating the predictable solution of throwing more taxpayer money at cancer research – of course, with no mention of accountability for producing anything. That would not fly very long with privately funded research.

We're pouring billions of dollars down what seems to be a cancer research rat hole. We don't know whether we're likely to reap any benefits. The only certain beneficiaries are the scientists who seem to view cancer research funding as a workfare entitlement for the overeducated but underproductive.

The lack of research progress is not altogether unexpected given the good ol' boy structure of the federal medical research establishment.

Research funding decisions made at the National Institutes of Health depend on incestuous committees of researchers that decide who gets how much money and for what. The operative rule among committee members is, "I'll support your grant if you'll support mine."

The NIH grant-making club doesn't tolerate dissent or even different ideas, which might help explain the lack of research progress.

Consider the experience of Peter Duesberg, a controversial AIDS researcher from the University of California, Berkeley.

Based on his cancer research, Duesberg was elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences in 1986. Duesberg also received an Outstanding Investigator Grant from the National Institutes of Health.

With those credentials, you might expect the National Institutes of Health would provide Duesberg with some resources for AIDS research. You'd be wrong.

The NIH unceremoniously cut-off Duesberg's funding in 1987 because he challenged the notion that the HIV virus causes AIDS. Then the NIH establishment took to discrediting Duesberg. The head of the federal AIDS research program even threatened to cut-off journalists' access to scientists if they reported Duesberg's ideas.

This federal silencing of Duesberg shocks the conscience — even if Duesberg's ideas had been totally off the wall. Duesberg was reduced to relying on private support, including soliciting donations though his web site.

You might think that after spending about $50 billion of taxpayer money on AIDS research — without producing a cure, vaccine or solid understanding of the disease — the NIH would be more interested in exploring new ideas rather than sabotaging a brilliant scientist's career because his research ideas are unorthodox.

While the AIDS "cocktails" seem to have helped many patients live longer, drug-resistant virus strains and adverse side reactions are slowly eroding the ostensible benefits, further drawing into question the silencing of Duesberg.

Don't look for Congress to clean this mess up. The vast majority of politicians are easily confused and intimidated by medical researchers. Attend a congressional hearing and observe scientists easily duck questions and muddle responses knowing that members of Congress have no hope of an intelligent follow-up.

The only practical political solution is to give researchers more money. No politician wants to be seen as blocking medical progress. Results? They're not necessary. Just throw more money into the research trough. More money means more cures, right?

Ironically, the greatest medical discovery ever was accidental. Scotsman Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in a discarded piece of lab equipment. The discovery did not require billions of dollars and legions of bureaucrat scientists.

If we are going to take ethical liberties with embryos, we should at least have confidence that the process has a chance of producing something worthwhile. Federally funded research doesn't meet this standard.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).