Research Staffing – A Silent Corruption
S.Q. Lapius was surrounded by crumpled paper tissues. He coughed and wheezed with the rest of us, while trying to get through his daily chores. “The ‘flu’ was kinder when it killed you,” he gurgled.
“Did you take your shots this year?” I asked.
“What good,” he said. “The virus is smarter than the virologists. It changes itself every few years.” His sneeze fanned the embers glowing in a distant hearth.
“Talking about viruses,” I said, “Did you happen to see the review of the committee of the National Cancer Advisory Board on the program of the Virus Cancer Program (VCP).”
“Of course I did. And it’s about time. The Virus Cancer Program is a creature of the National Cancer Institute. The program is funded at between $50-$60 million a year.”
“That’s a lot of loot,” I said helpfully.
“Excessive to say the least,” Lapius gurgled trying to clear his throat, and wrapping the steamed towels tighter around his tortured throat. “It wouldn’t be so bad if the money were disbursed nationally as grants to individual investigators, but it is held tight to the vest, and handed out as contract money instead.”
“What’s so bad about that?” I asked innocently, trying to goad him to forget the minor infection that had waylaid him.
“What is bad about that, Harry, is that it is a perversion of the original purpose of the National Institutes of Health funding program. Originally researcher weren’t allowed to even accept salaries from the program. This was permitted when the institutes in which the research was carried out, mostly teaching institutions, universities and medical schools, griped to the government, claiming that time out for research should be at government, the peoples’ expense. After all, they were working part time for government, the argument went. The government acceded. Once this was allowed, universities built entire teaching staffs of research men whose salaries were paid mainly by the government. A silent corruption, which, because it was supposed to be for the public weal, was never criticized. Actually the research program became sort of a federal aid to education.
“Originally, those in charge of research grants were men with missionary zeal, like the first generation of any new and public spirited project. But soon, the members of the various scientific institutes of the National Institutes of Health were given the privilege of building their own programs. Intramural funding expanded continually. Finally they were allowed to contract their research projects to outside scientific institutes, public or private, and monitor the results, from the hub at Bethesda, Maryland. Some of these contracts were for millions of dollars.”
“That’s a lot of money to manage.”
“Of course it is. Not only is it a lot of money to manage, but the data and information bought for that money is almost infinite, and can scarcely be managed by a single set of brains. The net effect was to centralize research instead of disseminating funds to individual research groups. It relied on one set of brains to find a cure for cancer instead of distributing the money so the ingenuity required could be distributed among many brains. I was glad to see that the head of the committee investigating the Virus Cancer Program, Norton Zinder of the Rockefeller Institute, was justifiably critical. He said, ‘There is an inordinate amount of power in the segment chairman’s group. It is this power that is responsible for the tensions that exist among contractors in the program and accounts for the antipathy to the program in the scientific community.’”
“I didn’t realize that the sympathy existed.”
“Of course it does,” sneezed Lapius, probing at his nose with another tissue. “The segment chairmen control contract money which could be used to supplement the large in-house programs they were running. The net effect was less money to outside investigators, and to restrict the ingenuity of the American Scientific community to a few insiders at the National Institutes of Health. What started out as a beautiful dream is becoming a nightmare.”
“But suppose they find the cure for cancer?” I asked.
“But suppose they don’t?” Lapius countered. “You have been around long enough to know, Harry, that investigative breakthroughs accrue from the convergence of surprise results culled from any independent fields of research. Suddenly everyone is on the virus bandwagon. When Ludwig Gross first demonstrated that viruses could cause cancer, the establishment was on the chemical carcinogenesis kick, and they tried to shoot him down. Now they’ve joined him. As a matter of fact, in 1919 when Ellerman and Bang first demonstrated the viral cause of leukemia in chickens, the scientific establishment was so opposed to the concept that they forced the authors to call it leucosis instead of leukemia. The pendulum has swung.”
“You don’t believe viruses cause leukemia?” I prodded.
“What difference what I think? The problem is that the funds for research should be properly distributed, not held closely by a power clique in the government. Some chicken farmer in Australia with a lively curiosity might make the crucial observation for all I know. Or maybe the embryologists, dissecting the chemistry of the rapid growth of fetal tissue are hot on the trail. Science is full of surprises. If it weren’t, then any decent bridge player could apply his logic to the known facts. It is the unknown that will provide the important information, and unknown facts can come only from widespread incentive to search for them. They can’t be bought in a contract. The chemistry of the german cockroach might be germane. Who knows? But one thing I do know, Harry, I am not dying of cancer. I am dying of the ‘flu’.”
With that Lapius closed his eyes to suffer in silence.