Hansen: Make Medical Research a Higher Priority

Campaign for Cures

The Campaign for Cures Election 2016 blog features news, analysis, commentary and data about the presidential candidates and congressional races in key states on issues relevant to medical progress. Janice Lloyd, former USA Today senior editor and health reporter, manages The Campaign for Cures blog. You can reach Janice at campaignforcures@gmail.com.   Follow Campaign for Cures, a national voter education initiative, on Twitter and Facebook and visit www.campaignforcures.org

Hansen: Make Medical Research a Higher Priority

Janice Lloyd

Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, shared his thoughts on what elected officials can do to make medical research a higher national priority. This is the second in a series of conversations with research leaders as part of the national voter education initiative Campaign for Cures. Here are his responses:

Question: Why is it important for candidates running for national office to share their views with voters about how to advance medical progress?

A: One of the main things we’re doing now is asking candidates, especially in competitive U.S. Senate races, about their commitment to federal funding for cancer research in particular. We’re not favoring anybody. We’re not rating them. We’re publicizing them whatever the answers are. What we’re finding is they’re very supportive. We started a two-year campaign last spring and made it very nonpartisan. Everyone’s been standing up and pledging their support for more cancer research. That was about the same time when Vice President Joe Biden started campaigning for Cancer Moonshot. I think they viewed it as nonpartisan after what his son went through. They saw it as more personal.

We knew the support was there. The problem is coming together to do it when they’re searching for weapons to throw at each other.

The other thing we’ve seen throughout history is that big advancements all correspond with a big investment by the government and industry in research and infrastructure. One of Ronald Reagan’s conservative economists wrote about this -- and that administration was trying to put the R&D tax credit into place. Things like the Erie Canal and the internet. I think people understand the economic activity spurred by the internet. I think we somehow have to get back to the fact that people are thinking we need to make investments and we also need to figure out how to get government and the private sector to collaborate on it in a way I don’t really think they are today.

Q: How can elected officials help create a climate that encourages private and public sector research and innovation?

A: When they talk to people from companies, whether they’re biomedical companies, or aerospace companies or internet companies, they should ask people what tools they need.

For example, I was at Boeing when the GPS program was started. We were the ones who launched the satellite. At the beginning, there was an Air Force general who was in charge of the program who always used to talk about when we made the case for funding for the GPS program that this is a program that has commercial utility. That was a good thing. I remember asking him what that commercial utility could be, and he said he had no idea. Fast forward, the GPS program was funded and the Commerce Department was asking to commercialize that signal. At that point, the Air Force fought it. They didn’t want, in those days particularly the Soviets, to understand exactly how good it was. We wound up on both sides of that debate. Those satellites were ours and the Air Force was our customer. But on the commercial side of the company we wanted to use the signal for our own navigation on commercial aircraft. I went to somebody in the White House and said “You’re going to have to resolve this, so the people in the commerce world can take advantage of that signal.”

Somehow we found a way to split the baby without giving away national security information. They did exactly that. The economic activity that spurred from that has been dramatic.

We need to have the conversation about what is it that we need to accelerate the economic interests and the security interests of the United States.

Q:  What can elected officials do to expedite the time it takes to find new cures, therapies and medical devices to improve quality of life for Americans?

A: I think again what legislators can do is ask the right questions. They can reach out to people and say: “What is it that you’d really benefit from?” “What kind of strategies do you need in biomedical research?”  “Is there another way to do it?”

I don’t think we do as good a job creating strategies as we could. It’s not as targeted as it could be. There’s a little bit of that conversation today, but there’s not nearly enough. We’re cofounding a cancer Dream Team along with Stand Up To Cancer. The people that started the Dream Team concept were not researchers at all. They thought there were gaps in our research. They thought why don’t we get the researchers who have the most background in key areas to create a Dream Team to focus on a specific issue. I think there’s much more to be gained in that kind of an atmosphere than dolling out a gazillion different grants for all kinds of things.

American Cancer Society is the largest provider of private research in the world. There’s a pretty robust debate going around within the American Cancer Society about whether or not we should be moving more of our assets to models like Stand Up to Cancer. You’re not just bringing researchers into the field. You’re taking the ones who have done great work and bringing them together. There needs to be more of that kind of collaboration.

A legislator can prod the question a little bit and ask what kind of tactics do you think can help us accomplish more?

Also, the FDA is looking for ways to accelerate bringing new therapies on line, but they have to be comfortable with the idea that we’re advancing things. They’re scared they’re going to make a mistake. That’s a natural tension. I don’t know how to make it go away. We need to be willing to change and not be so risk averse that we can’t keep moving forward. We’re going to make mistakes. With progress go mistakes. You have to decide how far down that continuum you’re willing to go.

Q: What can policymakers do to stimulate the biomedical industry to bring more businesses and jobs to states?

A: What we used to do in the aerospace industry is we’d get them to the place where they’d see what their dollars funded. I think that we don’t always do a good job of that. After the 2010 election, it became clear to me some of the new legislators had no idea how the money was spent. They wanted to stop spending money. We started holding events at cancer centers and inviting them there. We wanted them to see it was being given to research institutions around the country and that it was spurring economic activity and creating jobs. We need to make it visible. What is it? What does it mean and where is it going on? I’ve seen some pretty dramatic changes in behavior when they see what stakes their own states and districts have in the research. Once they understand that, normally they’re on board.

Q: In order to attract and retain the brightest minds in science, what needs to be done at the federal level to support current and future scientists?

A: I have a perspective on this. If you go back to our civil space program, when it started it, nobody knew about it. Then there were press conferences and you had the original astronauts talking about it. Then suddenly it got a lot of media attention and then many talented people started moving to math and science because they wanted to get into the field. What spurred that was people had a sense of what it meant. Somehow we need to find ways to re-inspire people about what we’re creating and the kind of research we’re talking about. I’m not sure we’re there right now.


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Presidential Candidates Should Participate in Debate on Science

Source: A Research!America and ScienceDebate.org poll of U.S. adults conducted in partnership with Zogby Analytics in September 2015.