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Thinking out loud
The same sort of effort [as the Manhattan Project model] that once solved a significant scientific challenge in a short period of time might be used as well for good as it was for harm in the creation of the atomic bomb.
- Barbara Brenner

by Barbara Brenner


I have many concerns about how - and what - breast cancer research is funded. Fortunately, many activists around the country are thinking about not only what is wrong, but how it might be fixed to get us to the goal of curing and preventing breast cancer. One idea is to revamp research into a model similar to the Manhattan Project that generated the atomic bomb for the United States.

Breast cancer research is currently carried on by a vast array of both public and private entities. I doubt anyone in the federal government or anywhere else would claim with a straight face that we have a coordinated strategy for finding a cure for, or understanding the cause of breast cancer.

Research is funded in increments that force scientists to work to renew their grants rather than to focus their complete attention on the problem. Uncertainties about what the next "sexy" research area will be keeps many outstanding researchers out of the breast cancer field. A desire for academic promotion or personal economic advantage drives far too many researchers either out of breast cancer research or out of research all together. And many of the pharmaceutical developments related to cancer have been made with public research dollars that are then converted to private profit.

So how do we get a coordinated research strategy, and how do we implement that strategy in the face of economic pressures that deter us, as a society, from getting where we need to go?

Both strategy and implementation might be achieved with the Manhattan Project model, based on the notion that the same sort of effort that once solved a significant scientific challenge in a short period of time might be used as well for good as it was for harm in the creation of the atomic bomb.

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What if we took all the money - public and private - now devoted to breast cancer research and put it into three or four research centers around the country? The centers would be staffed with the best and brightest scientists now working on issues related to breast cancer treatment and prevention. These scientists would come from a wide range of disciplines and would be guaranteed good salaries and all the research resources they need. They would not have to apply for grants. However, they would be prohibited from using their work to gain academic promotions or from patenting any process or product that resulted from their research. They would be supported until one or more of the centers produced both an effective treatment for breast cancer and an understanding of causes that would permit us to take steps to prevent the disease. Having multiple centers would ensure the competitiveness that seems to be necessary to all scientific and medical breakthroughs.

This is just a rough sketch of an idea - one that will end the breast cancer epidemic and put the [organization] Breast Cancer Action out of business. Because, when all is said and done, that is the goal.

Barbara Brenner was the executive director of Breast Cancer Action (BCA), known for launching the Think Before You Pink® campaign. She died in 2013 of breast cancer.

Excerpt reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press from So Much to Be Done: The Writings of Breast Cancer Activist Barbara Brenner by Barbara Brenner; edited by Barbara Sjoholm. Copyright 2016 by Suzanne Lampert. All rights reserved.

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