I’ve got to tell you, if you aren’t prepared to waste money on things that might not work, you can’t possibly do things that are transformative. Because for every successful transformative idea, there’s five times as many nonsuccessful transformative ideas. Nobody knows how to figure out in advance which ones they’re going to be.
—Eric Lander, professor at Harvard Med School and M.I.T. and one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project. He is responding to James Fallows in the January/February 2015 Atlantic interview, “When Will Genomics Cure Cancer?”
The question from Fallows that elicited the above quoted response was:
Any researcher can find ways to use extra money. But in genomics now, how significant is research funding as a limiting factor on progress toward therapies?
Dr. Lander was remarkably diplomatic and even sort of apolitical when he pointed out that:
Young scientists…need an NIH [National Institutes of Health, whence research grants come] that is able to place bets. With sequestration [the current limiting status of budget considerations in Congress], and the NIH budget falling by about 25 percent in real terms over the past decade, the people reviewing grants naturally become more conservative. When there’s less money, reviewers don’t want to run the risk of wasting money on something that doesn’t work.
“Something that doesn’t work.” Politicians sneer at “throwing good money after bad,” as if any government grant to an exploration of ideas, a test of theory, can be “bad.”
The value of experimentation, even when it “fails,” is to prove something. Proof that one thing doesn’t work removes that one thing from the process of discovering, inventing, developing, making things better for all of us. One better thing would be genetic exploration that develops effective treatments for cancer.
You want to “cure” cancer? Have a chat with your senators and representatives. Tell them to drop the disreputable Reagan-era dogma that governments should, yippee!, cut everyone’s taxes by a couple of bucks (except for corporations, of course, which get much, much bigger bucks in cuts) and balance things out by cutting the NIH budget.
So, pay your taxes and be glad we have such an agency as the NIH.