Revolution#118, February 3, 2008

Cancer Research Suppressed

“The Marketplace of Ideas” vs. The Search for the Truth

It’s the kind of article that’s a total outrage—and that makes perfect sense, once you think about it.

“Cancer Data? Sorry, Can’t Have It” read the headline in the New York Times science section on Tuesday, January 22. In the article, Andrew Vickers, a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, wrote about how he had been denied important evidence gathered by other researchers. Vickers had thought that some of this research data might help him ascertain whether a particular drug could help people with certain types of cancer.

Those researchers who refused him said that they might want to analyze the data themselves in the future; but years have passed, wrote Vickers, and “no such analyses have been forthcoming and few patients are benefiting from what could be a very effective drug.” He went on:

“Given the enormous physical, emotional and financial toll of cancer, one might expect researchers to promote the free and open exchange of information. The patients who volunteer for cancer trials often suffer through painful procedures and harsh experimental treatments in the hope of hastening a cure. The data they provide ought to belong to all of us. Yet cancer researchers typically treat it as their personal property.” Think about that—the patients volunteer for excruciating trials, in the hopes of saving lives; but the researchers treat the results as their “personal property.”

Surely, you think, this must be rare.

Think again.

Vickers notes that Dr. John Kirwan in England “found that three-quarters of researchers he surveyed, as well as a major industry group, opposed making trial data available. It is worth restating this finding: most scientists doing research on how best to help those in pain or at risk of death, want to keep their data secret.”

Why? In the survey cited, people came up with only trivial reasons; we can only deduce their real motives. One possible explanation is that researchers in this system are often forced to scramble for grants in order to continue working, and want to hoard the research to protect their careers. A recurring theme at Scienceblogs (and in many books, conferences, blogs, etc. that focus on science in academia) is the relentless pressure to produce, produce, produce in the form of bringing in research grants to the university and publishing articles that will bring prestige. There are more people with Ph.D.s in science than there are available jobs, leading people to scramble for the same few jobs and often to remain underpaid. They’ve spent years and incurred massive debt, and likely have families they need to support. The existence of so many unemployed Ph.D.s is yet another example of how capitalism fetters the productive forces of society—the productive force in this case being the actual knowledge and skills that these people have and could contribute, but which remain unused due to the rule of capital.

Vickers also notes that “Scientists don’t want to be scooped by their own data, or have someone else challenge their conclusions with a new analysis.”

But it goes even deeper. Capitalism turns everything into a commodity to be bought and sold—even, and indeed especially, human knowledge. Everyone competes with everyone else. Hence, the economic relations of capitalism enforce an ethos, a mindset and morality, of “look out for number one.” This ethos extends into every pore of society and warps every human activity and relation.

We doubt that most cancer researchers got into it “for the money.” But what they aspire to do can only go on within the framework of this society’s social relations, and that framework on a very basic level ends up standing in the way of and eventually warping their original—which was almost certainly in most cases contributing to the store of human knowledge and helping to eliminate disease.

The apologists for capitalism maintain that the “marketplace of ideas” is the best way to advance human knowledge. In fact, the market itself fetters and suppresses human knowledge. This happens through the actions of the ruling class itself, which suppress and/or marginalize ideas that go against its interests, and that consciously promote ignorance and falsehood. But it also goes on, on a deeper level, through the spontaneous workings of a society where everything is a commodity to be bought and sold, and where that basic social relation trains everyone to look at their ideas as a potential source of capital and self-aggrandizement—keeping them “off the market” when they can’t profit from them, protecting them from exposure if they may be false. And research, study, inquiry, and the search for knowledge is compartmentalized, with all kinds of fields of study rigidly and unnecessarily cut off from each other. Where is the search for truth in all this?

Communism offers something far better. It envisions, and can make real, a society where the pursuit of the truth, both in its own right and for worthy goals like wiping out disease, can finally be unfettered by capitalist relations. Where people can work with each other—bouncing off each other’s insights, criticizing the blind spots and mistakes, and coming up with a deeper, more accurate understanding of what’s true and what’s not. The socialist revolution—as the first great step to communist society—will not only put the pursuit of knowledge in command of scientific research and enable researchers and scientists to make their fullest possible contribution to that; it will “open the doors” of scientific research very broadly, drawing masses of people into the arena in many different ways, as part of moving toward a society where everyone is able to work both with their minds and their hands.

In fighting and working for this vision, let’s also not forget that one-quarter of the researchers in the survey discussed above rose above the dog-eat-dog outlook and actually did NOT go along with the idea of denying to others the research data that they themselves had worked on. And let’s learn as well from the palpable outrage of Andrew Vickers in his article. There are many among the scientists and intellectuals who yearn for something better, who resist the depredations of the market relations and abhor the market mentality, and who would love to contribute to a society which would truly foster the pursuit of knowledge—both in its own right, and to better the lot of humanity.

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