New York Times trolls Cancer Research, Research Partisans Call Emu Alert

Gina Kolata at the NY Times wrote a Sunday Times piece about the risk averse National Cancer Institute funding regime. I’ll just say that reading the headline and first few sentences in my still plastic-bag wrapped and folded Sunday Times I started to lost my grip on polite discourse, though I am generally well-regarded in that regard.

For the full flavor of the piece, you should just take it all in, but it is your typical collection of Just So™ brand Straw and concern-trollish question-asking. The shallowness of the piece is astounding. I however am taking it to heart. If Kolata can be given more weight for NIH funding decisions, my grant with the below aims has a good shot at being funded:

Specific Aim 1: Obtain underpants.

Specific Aim 2: ???????

Specific Aim 3: Cure cancer!!!!!!!

I note that this project is incredibly risky with a huge upside.

Orac has some thoughts here, here. Mike the Mad. Jim Hu.

22 Responses to “New York Times trolls Cancer Research, Research Partisans Call Emu Alert”

  • The shallowness of the piece is astounding.

    And in the NYT, you say?


  • I really feel the only appropriate response is a Fafblog-style (Fafnir specific) reproach:

    Silly scientists, why haven’t they cured cancer? In the good old days we found a disease and cured it several hundred years later. Nowadays, it’s been several decades and we have only kind of fixed some small percentage of the problem.

    Off with their heads, the lot of ’em! The next batch will do much better!

  • Alternate reading, after applying conventional wisdom filter: Corporations do everything better.

  • Giblets will smite cancer with his army of nanobots! But cancer has their own nanobots! Drat! Giblets gives cancer the cold shoulder and chilly reception!

  • The Uncanny Canadian

    For one, all of us doing basic research are obviously wasting our times, since I haven’t come up with a single drug to cure a disease. Shame on me. Obviously, all important targets and pathways have already been identified, so there really is no value in funding my research. I’m glad that I finally understand.

  • Indeed. they need to get the DoD funding people in there – no project is too stupid when it has a microchance of success. “A program to wire bats with explosives and set them loose in China? FUNDED”

    and see how much better we’re doing in military wars than the war on cancer.

    though GK did write a book on the flu pandemic that I really liked.

  • I also love this mysterious mystery:

    He added that the problem of getting money for imaginative but chancy proposals had worsened in recent years. There are more scientists seeking grants — they surged into the field in the 1990s when the National Institutes of Health budget doubled before plunging again.

    hmmm, the NIH budget doubled in the 1990s – I wonder what was going on in the 90s? and look what happened – more scientists! Then the budget plunged…after the 90s. Hmmmm. what a mystery.

  • Then the budget plunged…after the 90s. Hmmmm. what a mystery.

    The Free Markets™ demanded more investamentation in non-regulation of scientific mortgage real-estate bubble beverage products.

  • I have more awesomeness to share with you from NY Times comments. GK’s position to know better makes this even more of a travesty. She’s an insider that’s really a villager on science issues. From a science family with grad work at MIT but then into the Science editor and science journalism side- this makes her kind of like a science pundit.

  • So she’s going to party with Megan McCardle like it’s 1999?

  • Did you know the federal government once paid me to go live for a summer in San Diego and learn the dark art of fermentation?

    No wonder they haven’t cured cancer…

  • wait – the writer’s name is Gina Kolata?

    i am SO changing my name to Scotcha Ontherocks, or maybe Jack N. Coke.

  • Head explosion in T minus 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….


    Warning, sciency crap coming:

    This article is the same regurgitated crap I have been listening to for more years than I would like to admit. Two parts I love the most (and by love I mean want to scream), first:
    Many other grants involve biological research unlikely to break new ground. For example, one project asks whether a laboratory discovery involving colon cancer also applies to breast cancer. But even if it does apply, there is no treatment yet that exploits it.

    I am assuming this is p53, but the specifics don’t matter. The stupidity of claiming that understanding the underlying ontogeny of different cancers is not useful if there is not a direct, known treatment for it already. Chicken meet egg. Egg meet chicken.

    Yet studies like the one on tasty food are financed. That study, which received a grant of $100,000 over two years, is based on the idea that since obesity is associated with an increased risk of cancer, understanding why people have trouble losing weight could lead to better weight control methods, which could lead to less obesity, which could lead to less cancer.

    This shows the writer couldn’t even be bothered to do some basic back info research. A $200K grant is a small exploratory grant (R03 or the like) designed to seed ideas that don’t have a lot of preliminary data. If it goes well, it is then rolled into a bigger 5 year grant (R01, $200K+ for 5 years). It is exactly the mechanism that Eileen Jaffe down-article bitches about not having to get the preliminary data she needs to successfully get funded. Essentially she just wanted to go straight to R01 based on trust (PP’s underpants grant). The article is internally contradictory. This is lazy, sloppy, inaccurate writing on an important topic (i.e. how do we prioritize limited resources to maximize efficiency). I could make 5 phone calls and get 5 stories about how a scientist got shafted because the reviewers didn’t want to fund risky research. Solution, get the preliminary data and write a less risky grant. Period.
    Additionally, the cherry-picking of grants to prove systematic problems is really annoying. NCI consumes 1/3 of the entire NIH budget! One $200K grant is proof that there is no risky spending?!?! Get real.

    All that said, I don’t much agree with Mike the Mad. There are mechanisms for the “big science” he proposes and I actually think on a per dollar basis, some of these larger efforts do not necessarily represent good investments. The NIH has additional “Roadmap” funding that is designed to be even bigger and more collaborative. It now represents about 1% of the NIH budget and I would not want it to get larger. The R01 mechanism is actually pretty good, although I would argue that they could be a bit larger and some structural changes to the review process are needed to really be effective. Still, per capita expense shows the US system to be better than most other countries in terms of scientific advancement.

    Finally (really) no one, Gina Kolata nor any of the comments on the article address the real problem with funding the “risky” research. If an individual is stepping out of the mainstream of research to break some paradigm or another, how can a group of scientists possibly evaluate it? If that person is smarter and better versed in the research question than the reviewers, the reviewers will probably not understand the grant and be skeptical of it, if the applicant is just wrong because s/he is an idiot, the reviewers will be skeptical of the grant as well.
    But even blind pigs find acorns.
    Essentially there is no real mechanism for evaluating risky research. The scientist just has to cobble enough money together from other sources and get enough preliminary data to suggest s/he has a chance of succeeding. This is how businesses are run, I don’t see why it should be different for academia…

  • I also think Gina Kolata is a nom de plume of Genie Kola, who is trying to destroy PP’s fledgling career out of spite over an eaten cinnabun.

  • *smacks forehead* I don’t know why I didn’t see that myself. It’s so obvious!

  • I also think Gina Kolata is a nom de plume of Genie Kola, who is trying to destroy PP’s fledgling career out of spite over an eaten cinnabun.

    I had thought the same thing, but didn’t want to say it since I was sure that there was some 3B Genie Cola provenance I was not aware of. Unlike some, I am not aware of all internet/3B traditions…

    Pfffft. Live and learn.

  • I want to add that all of these scientists complaining were trained in an NIH funded system, likely in NIH funded labs. All of them have been funded throughout their careers by the NIH.

    For example if something is risky, let us consider it low success rate high reward. What is the best way to increase the overall success rate of such proposals? Fund basic research so we know better what is going on. If we wanted to play the cherry pick game we could have picked thousands of proposals/ideas that didn’t work out, and then we could have enjoyed thousands of No True Scotsman/Negative Data fallacies as counterarguments.

    If only…. etc.

  • If we wanted to play the cherry pick game…

    The cherry pie game is much more rewarding, for everybody.

  • Obtain underpants

    I wouldn’t use the NY Times makes for avian underpants, nor fish apparel.

  • didn’t jimmy buffet sing a song about gina kolatas?

  • yes, she gets lost in the rain

Leave a Reply


What is 90 + 41 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is: