An Idea for the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative

During his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama called on Vice President Biden to lead a new, national “Moonshot” initiative to eliminate cancer as we know it. Today, the White House is announcing a new $1 billion initiative to jumpstart this work. (fact sheet)

The country – the world, really – is fighting the war against cancer with both hands tied behind its back. This work is quintessentially cutting-edge science, and the lifeblood of work in any advanced scientific field is research. Cutting off access to research results – either the seminal (foundational) research or the very latest findings published earlier this morning – is a certain way to kill this kind of endeavor. When researchers, scientists, and others working on a project can’t find out was has already been tried, what has been proven to work, and what has already been shown to fail, they are doomed to spin frenetically in an eddy of frustrated impotence, forever.

The overwhelming majority of research on cancer is owned by publishers of academic journals like Elsevier and Springer. More specifically, publishers own the copyright to the research articles that report the results of the research funded by governments, foundations, and corporations. By owning the copyrights, publishers control who is and who isn’t allowed to read the research. And the toll they demand for permission to read this research is unconscionably high. (When an institution wealthy as Harvard says it can no longer afford the price of journals, you know there’s a problem.)

So here we are, trying to defeat cancer – one of the most research-intensive tasks ever undertaken – without permission to read the research on cancer. But it’s not just reading that publishers restrict. Publishers also use copyright to prevent translation of articles into other languages, and restrict data-mining of the articles by algorithms that can potentially discover patterns and connections that humans might never find.

What is the single highest impact thing the federal government can do to speed the pace of research, improve the quality of research, and facilitate “the end of cancer as we know it?” Insure that that anyone and everyone who wants to work on the cancer problem can read the research (including non-English speakers and computers).

But how can this be accomplished, you ask, seeing as the journals already own the copyrights to the journal articles? Here are two proposals.

1. Publishers are willing to release research articles they own rights to as open access in exchange for a fee. One way to open the scholarly record on cancer research is for the NIH (or another entity) to simply offer to pay this fee for “all” cancer-related articles. When they make this offer, they should demand a steep discount for two reasons. First, they’re buying in bulk. Second, they’ve already paid for the overwhelming majority of the research reported in these articles. For example, NIH invests between $105,000 and $120,000 in research funding per article written, while the Wellcome Trust estimates that publishers of high quality journals invest about $2750 to publish that article. A typical open access fee runs between $1500 and $3000. I think the NIH should offer around $10 per article.

How much money would we be talking about? It’s difficult to know exactly how many articles we’re talking about, since publishers won’t permit you to read articles that look like they would contain the answer. (But never fear! For only $30 we can rent the article for 24 hours and find the answer! See how this madness makes research impossible?)

An open access article on the NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research‘s blog suggests that in the last 30 years or so the NIH has funded research resulting in about 1.5M articles. To make the numbers easy, let’s assume that pre-1985 they supported research resulting in the same number of papers, for a grand total of 3M articles. If every single piece of research they’ve ever funded was about cancer, the cost of opening them all at $10/article would be $30M. Even at $100 per article the number is only $300M. Given that NIH is projecting that the costs of cancer care (based on changes in the US population and cancer trends) will reach $158 BILLION annually by 2020, either of these prices is a bargain basement deal if they can move the needle – which I believe the could.

This offer to buy the open access option for a huge group of articles gives publishers – whose only competition in terms of their utterly abysmal reputation is Comcast – a chance to look like the good guys for the first time in forever. Conversely, it also gives them the opportunity to stand up and defend their choice to delay a cure for cancer for the sake of their profits on the 6:00 news and on the front page of the New York Times.

2. If (when) publishers decline to be part of the solution by providing a significant discount on open access fees, the feds should invoke eminent domain. Here’s how it would work:

Strong copyright advocates have long claimed that creative works are “property” and therefore should be afforded all of property’s protections and other considerations under the law. They propagate this notion by encouraging us to use the term “intellectual property.” Let’s play that idea out for a moment. Adapting language from Wikipedia for the sake of expediency:

Eminent domain is the power of a state or a national government to take private property for public use. The property may be taken either for government use or by delegation to third parties, who will devote it to public or civic use. The power of governments to take private real or personal property has always existed in the United States, as an inherent attribute of sovereignty. This power reposes in the legislative branch of the government and may not be exercised unless the legislature has authorized its use by statutes that specify who may use it and for what purposes. The legislature may take private property by passing an Act transferring title to the government. The property owner may then seek compensation by suing in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims… Its use was limited by the Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, which reads, “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Fifth Amendment did not create the national government’s right to use the eminent domain power, it simply limited it to public use.

Has there ever been a better public use argument for taking private property under the government’s eminent domain power than in speeding the cure for cancer?

If we can invoke eminent domain to build a road, can’t we can invoke it to cure cancer?

As the Fifth Amendment notes, the law requires “just compensation” when private property is taken in this manner. If I were the government, I would start the conversation at $5 per article because I’d be frustrated that we didn’t just settle the whole issue at $10 per without the fight. Would publishers press the issue? What do you suppose a rigorous economic analysis would reveal the value of a 20, 30, or 50-year-old article about cancer to be?

Ryan Merkley has been doing some great writing about open access and the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative which is forward looking – encouraging us to ensure that all future research on cancer is freely and openly available immediately upon publication for people to read, translate, and data mine. His recommendations – which are terrific – are the very least we should do.

Which is more of a moonshot – curing cancer, or making the entire record of relevant research open access? Which do you really think we have a better chance of doing?