This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. On Thursday, April 21, Future Tense will hold an event in Washington, D.C., on the reproducibility crisis in biomedicine. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
The U.S. government spends $5 billion every year on cancer research; charities and private firms add billions more. Yet the return on this investment—in terms of lives saved, suffering reduced—has long been disappointing: Cancer death rates are drifting downward in the past 20 years, but not as quickly as we'd hoped. Even as the science makes incremental progress, it feels as though we're going in a circle.
That's a "hackable problem," says Silicon Valley pooh-bah Sean Parker, who last week announced his founding of a $250 million institute for research into cancer immunotherapy, an old idea that's come around again in recent years. "As somebody who has spent his life as an entrepreneur trying to pursue kind of rapid, disruptive changes," Parker said, "I'm impatient."
Many science funders share Parker's antsiness over all the waste of time and money. In February, the White House announced its plan to put $1 billion toward a similar objective—a "Cancer Moonshot" aimed at making research more techy and efficient. But recent studies of the research enterprise reveal a more confounding issue, and one that won't be solved with bigger grants and increasingly disruptive attitudes. The deeper problem is that much of cancer research in the lab—maybe even most of it—simply can't be trusted. The data are corrupt. The findings are unstable. The science doesn't work.