Memo To Candidates: Support For U.S. Cancer Research Crosses Party Lines

Elaine Schattner, CONTRIBUTOR - Forbes - See Original Here

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

[COMMENT: Now if they will only listen... (Alan)]

A new poll finds that Americans overwhelmingly favor spending U.S. government funds on cancer research. The national survey of 1000 registered voters, commissioned by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), suggests that cancer concerns cross party lines. I was impressed, and a bit surprised, by the findings.

Of all those surveyed, 74% generally favor an increase in U.S. cancer research spending. Some 87% of Democrats, 71% of Independents, and 63% of Republicans indicated general support for increasing federally-funded cancer research. Essentially half of all respondents, 49%, “strongly favor” a raise in federal dollars for cancer investigations, and 18% oppose it.

A striking 50% of those surveyed said they’d be more likely to vote for a Presidential candidate who supports “sustained increases in federal funding for cancer research over the next decade,” and 10% indicated they’d be less likely to do so. For Congressional candidates, the numbers were similar: 50% more likely, and 8% less likely.

The survey was conducted by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies in late July 2015 and released today by the AACR. According to that organization, the statistical margin of error for a survey of this size is ±3.1 percentage points. Telephone interviews were accomplished by landlines, cell phones and Internet connections. While bias can (and likely does) influence the report, based on how people were contacted for phone interviews, how the questions were phrased, who responded, and other factors – including the AACR’s decision to publicize these findings – the trends appear clear.

“These numbers are incredibly high,” said Dr. José Baselga in a phone interview. He is physician-in-chief at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, and current AACR president. They show that people are in favor of using taxpayer dollars for cancer research, he said. “People are not just concerned, but willing to give.”

I asked Baselga why support is so strong. “There are two reasons,” he said. “First, everyone has been touched by cancer,” he said. “And people see that breakthroughs are happening.”

“There’s been real progress,” Baselga said. “If you look at the mortality rates from all cancer, we are seeing decreases in the range of 2 to 3 percent per year,” he said. “Imagine if you had an economy that is changing at that rate.” Since 1990, the drop in cancer deaths (measured per 100,000 people) has been evident across almost all forms of the disease, but it varies. “For some cancer types, it’s much better,” he added.

I suggested the possibility that some people favor or have more confidence in government-funded research relative to industry-sponsored studies. “That’s a fascinating possibility,” Baselga said. “It would require a deeper dive to evaluate that.”

“There’s a perception that federal money is probably going into unbiased research. People may think science is more credible when it’s done by clinicians in academic centers.” That kind of research has a seal of integrity that is hard to assure in industry-supported research,” Baselga said. “But there’s a huge amount of good science coming now from industry, too.”

“Key advances in science have been led by government-funded work,” Baselga said. “Consider the human genome project,” he said. “Industry focuses on applied science, which is great. But everything is born out of basic research support. There is probably no way that industry would have sponsored the human genome project.” That work underlies so much that’s happening in industry now, including development of new targeted drugs. “It’s a very clear example of how federal funds make a big change.”

The polling results indicate that people would be more willing to vote for a candidate who supports cancer research as a national priority, Baselga said. “There is something powerful in these numbers, the consistency,” he said. “What I don’t know is how other factors contribute,” he added. “There are many variables.”

“A national priority is to keep the U.S. at the forefront of science,” Baselga said. “I’m from Barcelona.” The quality of science is what drew him to the States, as it does other physician-researchers, he considered. “Here in the U.S. we receive scientists from all over the world. We train them. We have a tradition, and want to keep the best minds. That has been in great part why America is so powerful,” he said. “We can’t afford to lose that.”

Young doctors are turning away from research, Baselga observed. “There has been an unprecedented decline in NIH funding, of 25 percent over 10 years,” he said. “Something I’m very worried about, because I see this day in and day out, is that our best minds should go into science. But what we see is that people are running away from science and seeking other careers, because they see how hard it is to get funding,” he said. “Only eight percent of submitted proposals are accepted.” The whole field suffers when scientists are so discouraged, he said.

Although one might expect a published, AACR-sponsored survey to offer a positive view of this subject, the analysis suggests public optimism and a stated willingness to give that exceeded my expectations. Despite a fragile economy, and skepticism about cancer progress in some media, this survey supports that a majority of U.S voters favor more research, and they want it to be government-funded.

Support for publically-funded medical research is not limited to cancer investigations. Overall 81% of respondents favored federal funding of “medical research to fight diseases and improve public health,” and 12% opposed it. This broader area of research support also crossed party lines, with 88% of Democrats, 77% of independents and 75% of Republicans favoring federal research support.

The poll suggests that public perception of progress against cancer was soft, but widespread: 85% of respondents indicated that “progress is being made”; almost one in four, 24%, referred to “rapid progress” being made and 61% acknowledged “just some progress” against cancer. The overall public sense about rapid progress, or some progress, was unmatched compared to the same for perception of progress against other conditions: heart disease (22% “rapid”, 82% “some”), diabetes (18%, 78%), HIV/AIDS (21%, 70%), Alzheimer’s (8%, 64%) and obesity (8%, 58%).