Volume 22, Number 2 April 1993
Physics and Cancer, Further ResponsesIn a few years, if present trends continue, cancer will surpass heart disease as the leading cause of death in America, and will claim at least 500,000 deaths annually. Of those who survive, and 50% do survive for at least 5 years, the suffering involved in mutilative surgery, sickening drugs, and the side effects of radiation treatment properly make cancer the most dreaded of diseases. Yet there is no hint of compassion for those sufferers in Professor Finegold's response (January 1993) to my letter (October 1992), which chastises me by name seven times, and most unjustly in each case. Did he really read my letter before he fired off his error-filled, thoughtless missive?
The war on cancer had a political origin, as Professor Finegold says, but isn't that true of all wars? In the case of cancer the "war" metaphor is amply justified when one considers that the annual toll of dead and dying far surpasses the toll of any ordinary war. The metaphor is useful for other reasons. In war, when the commanders consistently fail to win battles and the war drags on, impatience grows and there is a call for a change of command. Isn't it time for such a change at the National Cancer Institute? And the term "war" reminds us of the profiteers, the turf minders, the complacent and the defeatists in war, all of whom are deterrents to success in the war on cancer as they are in ordinary wars.
We now know there will be a change in the top command of the Department of Health and Human Services, which controls the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, from an experienced physician, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, to Dr. Donna Shalala, a political scientist and academic administrator. Her announced priorities are child immunization, Head Start and AIDS. The mortality from AIDS is 6.5% that of cancer. Such a change is no more likely to give fresh impetus to the war on cancer than Professor Finegold's turf-protecting and patronizing remarks.
That fresh impetus might come from some lonesome genius laboring in a modest laboratory without the distractions of federal or Cancer Society grants, or from inside the cancer establishment. One can never tell. But we can be sure that it will be someone with the sincerity, compassion, fresh outlook and zeal for fundamental truth that have always animated our best minds.
Among the sine qua non for economic competitiveness is a well-educated population. For two decades, now, our country has graduated many millions of people from high schools who lack basic skills. It is not necessary for me to recite, yet again, the horrifying statistics and facts about recent graduates of the US public schools. The idea that such graduates can be somehow incorporated into an economically competitive society via teaming is just wrong.
Although some benefits might accrue from enhanced and coordinated government-industry-academia interaction, I suspect that the rewards to US industry will remain marginal, and probably negligible, until the primary problem has been solved. That problem is the public education disaster in the US. I'm afraid that teeming, rather than teaming, will be the fate of millions of Americans in the 21st century if we don't fix our schools now.
If a for-profit scientific research corporation were established, with initial funding of $1 billion to $10 billion, from $1,000 or greater investments from the above group, the public, pension funds, endowment funds, and foundations, we could provide by demonstration the answer to your friend Greg's question,"What are physicists (and other scientists) good for, Hobson?" Income from patents and spin-off enterprises would provide the cash flow to support the work and dividends for the investors. Any issue of the Journal of Applied Physics (other journals also) has an embryonic form, ideas for dozens of new industries, and also identifies the key researchers to lead the projects.
Projects that need to be studied include new non-polluting processes for every manufactured product, energy-efficient processes, recycling technologies, safe nuclear energy, methods of cleaning the oceans and atmosphere, space propulsion systems, new transportation systems, etc. All of these require a blend of basic science, engineering, and inventiveness, similar to Thomas Edison's laboratory.
What is lacking is leadership in the scientific community, i.e. in the scientific societies. Science would rather live off the dole and complain, than take its fate in its own hands.
The first products of the new corporation should be a series of scientific toys and experiments for all ages, and sponsorship of a national science competition at each grade level, with cash, trips, internships, and scholarships as prizes. Science is fun, science is magic, science is exciting, science makes money, and it's time that the scientific community took the lead in demonstrating this, rather than talking about"natural philosophy" being ill. We, the scientific community, are ill, due to a lack of coherent inspired leaders, with the guts to do something on their own without relying on the government.
Physics and Society can take the lead in this. Readers can take an informal poll of colleagues, asking if they support the concept, and if they would invest in it, and whether they would recommend that their pension fund invest, and send the results to the editor. The Forum on Physics and Society could sponsor a symposium on the issue at one of the APS meetings.
Global Warming and a Gasoline TaxI write to comment on James Felton's (January 1993) criticism of higher gas taxes. In Australia we pay approximately $US 1.65 per US gallon of petrol of which approximately half is government tax. Australia's petrol is almost the cheapest in the world, with the USA having the cheapest.
Firstly, I would like to remind Mr. Felton that moneys from gas taxes should pay for much more than road construction: cars and their drivers being responsible for pollution and road accidents, to name just a few.
Secondly, higher prices charged for gas -- whether levied by the companies or the government -- is the only real way to spur conservation and the exploitation of new energy systems. At the moment there are many alternative, renewable, energy sources which are prevented from becoming viable on their own merits because our society is so dependent on the oil-driven automobile. Oil is a finite resource, so we can either wait for a final oil shortage crisis, or we can plan for the time that we no longer can simply dig our fuel up out of the ground.
Personally, I would be a little annoyed were our government to charge higher gas taxes, since it would increase the cost of my 20 km drive to work. However, if the government were able to fund alternative energy research and also reduce national debt by raising such extra taxes, they would get my vote. One has to look at the longer term view.