With Kennedy as Hook, Couric Rues Inadequate Cancer Spending

CBS anchor Katie Couric used news, that Senator Ted Kennedy is suffering from a brain tumor, as the hook for a lengthy story in which she railed against reduced federal funding for cancer research, though her own numbers and official numbers contradict her premise of any significant reductions. Noting how “nearly one in two men, and more than one in three women, in this country will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime,” Couric regretted: “Yet since 2004 federal funding for research into the four most common kinds of cancer -- lung, colon, breast and prostate -- has been cut by more than $100 million.” In fact, National Cancer Institute numbers show a 4.4 percent overall budget increase since 2003, not enough to match inflation but hardly a huge cut, while spending on “brain & central nervous system” (Kennedy's plight) grew by 33 percent and spending on pancreatic cancer, which killed Couric's sister, rose 75 percent.

Relying on a March report published by seven research companies and universities interested in more grants, “Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk,” Couric asserted that “experts worry this small, elite army” of cancer scientists “is leaving the field in droves because government funding, which once allowed cancer research to flourish, is now drying up.” Seconds later, however, Couric reported that “between 1998 and 2003, Congress doubled the National Institutes of Health budget, allowing research to thrive,” but “since 2004, funding has flat lined.” So it has “flat lined” at a level double where it stood ten years ago.

Couric then yearned for the U.S. to follow the European model, lamenting how scientists are “heading overseas where governments and companies in Asia and Europe are creating a brain drain in this country.”

No CBS story would be complete without someone blaming the Iraq war and, indeed, Couric featured a Cornell doctor who insisted the grant situation is “disheartening” because of “all the economic problems” and “the continuation of the Iraq war.”

Couric concluded that “the more than 10 million Americans currently living with cancer” have “the most to lose” from “declining research dollars.”

The view from conservatives Wednesday night? Couric plugged how in part two of “The War on Cancer, Where We Stand,” CBS will look at how “it can take years for the FDA to approve experimental treatments. Is red tape costing lives?” That's an unusual take for network news which loves to hype any studies that suggest any danger from a prescription drug.

Maybe cancer research is deserving of more government funding over less-pressing areas, but viewers deserve better than inflammatory claims of huge imaginary “cuts” in funding and the assertion that a doubling of spending to $4.7 billion (NCI's budget) means money “is now drying up.”

Page vii (page 10 of the PDF) of the National Cancer Institute's “2007 Fact Book” states:

“The NCI budget has increased by $200.3 million -- or 4.4% -- since FY 2003. Cancer Centers, Specialized Centers, and R&D Contracts have experienced percentage increases greater than the total NCI growth since FY 2003.” Research grant spending has risen “by 2.6 percent” -- below the inflation rate.

(NCI is part of the National Institutes for Health, which in turn is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.)

Total NCI funding, by recent fiscal year:
2003: $4.592 billion
2004: $4.723
2005: $4.794
2006: $4.747
2007: $4.792
On page xiii (page 16 of the PDF) a chart on research funding from 2003 to 2007 reports the allocations for the four cancers cited by Couric:
Lung: down $46 million
Colorectal: down about $3 million
Prostate: down about $9 million
Breast: up $24 million
That net outs to a $34 million reduction, far from Couric's $102 million claim. The cut is even less if measured from 2004.

Of course, funding levels change year by year depending on the promise of grant requests and lobbying of Congress, so several cancer areas saw big hikes between 2003 and 2007:
Brain & Central Nervous System grew by $37 million (33 percent), from $111 million to $148 million.

Non Hodgkin's Lymphoma rose $23 million (20 percent), from $95 million to $113 million.

Pancreatic increased $31 million (75 percent), from $42 million to $73 million.
Transcript of Couric's piece on the Tuesday, May 20 CBS Evening News:
KATIE COURIC: The news today that Senator Ted Kennedy has cancer reminds us again how this disease can change our lives in an instant. Nearly one in two men, and more than one in three women, in this country will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. And yet since 2004 federal funding for research into the four most common kinds of cancer -- lung, colon, breast and prostate -- has been cut by more than $100 million [$102]. Tonight we begin a special series: The War on Cancer, Where We Stand.

They are America's foot soldiers in the war on cancer: Young scientists whose research may some day lead to better treatments, maybe even cures. But experts worry this small, elite army is leaving the field in droves because government funding, which once allowed cancer research to flourish, is now drying up.

How bad is it?

DR. DON NANUS, CO-CHIEF ONCOLOGIST, WEILL CORNELL MEDICAL CENTER: I think we're at very high risk of losing some of our best and brightest young people. It's very disheartening. Between all the economic problems in the United States, the continuation of the Iraq war, the low levels of funding.

COURIC: So what does that mean?

NANUS: Short term? It's not good.

COURIC: The statistics are staggering. Between 1998 and 2003, Congress doubled the National Institutes of Health budget, allowing research to thrive. But since 2004, funding has flatlined. Today only one in ten promising cancer research proposals gets funded. And on average, researchers are 43 years old when they get their first grant. These doctors are frustrated.

DR. JOSEPH MANCIAS, TRI-INSTITUTIONAL MD-PHd PROGRAM: Some of your best ideas need to be funded at an earlier point in your life so you have the energy and the drive to continue.

COURIC: Is this going to be very damaging to our efforts to lead the pack in terms of novel cancer treatments and medicines for other serious illnesses?

DR. HEARN CHO, NYU CANCER INSTITUTE: America has been the unquestioned leader in biomedical research for a long time. But that primacy is at risk now.

COURIC: Doctor Hearn Cho specializes in plasma cell cancer. He graduated from medical school 12 years ago and since then has struggled to fund his research. And he makes only half of what his colleagues earn in private practice.

CHO: When I reached a point where I was concerned about the future and I had to consider practical matters of staying employed, I had to consider the possibility that I might have to take a job in industry.

COURIC: By industry, he means pharmaceutical companies. And while they were they are doing research it's focused on moving drugs into clinical trials instead of basic research where the creation of new drugs and approaches takes place. Some researchers are getting out of the field altogether to pursue more lucrative careers sometimes, on Wall Street. Still others are heading overseas where governments and companies in Asia and Europe are creating a brain drain in this country, attracting young Americans like Duncan Odom who left M.I.T. to go to great Britain's Cambridge University.

DUNCAN ODOM, ONCOLOGY GROUP LEADER, CAMBRIDGE RESEARCH INSTITUTE: The feeling within Europe itself that there's a very positive forward-thinking optimistic feel about the future of not just cancer research but science research in general.

COURIC: At 38, Dr. Odom runs his own lab, has a staff of three and has secured financial backing to the tune of more than $1.2 million a year.

ODOM: The difference is that cancer research in U.K. has core funded me indefinitely which means that these are expenditures that I don't have to think about.

COURIC: Unlike his fellow researchers back in the U.S.

Why do you guys do it?

CHO: Because this is what we love. We've dedicated our lives to advancing the understanding of cancer as a disease and developing new ways of treating it.

GABRIELLE RIZZUTO, TRI-INSTITUTIONAL MD-PHd PROGRAM: I'm excited about the prospect of finding something that will actually make a difference.

COURIC: A difference for the more than 10 million Americans currently living with cancer. And when it comes to declining research dollars, they have the most to lose.

The war on cancer is not just a fight for money but also a battle against time. It can take years for the FDA to approve experimental treatments. Is red tape costing lives? We'll have that story tomorrow as we continue the War on Cancer: Where We Stand.
Online version of Couric's Tuesday night story, with video of it.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center