PRAEGER, MARCH 2017It’s hard to believe that something like cancer, which doesn’t care about your party affiliation, could have a partisan tinge to it. And yet Proctor, in his book Cancer Wars, argues that politics itself has been an integral factor in cancer funding and prevention efforts. His history suggests that ideologically influenced administrations, including those of the Carter and Reagan presidencies, had significant effects on cancer prevention and funding. Consistent with the overall regulatory cuts suffered under the Reagan administration, Proctor details how environmental prevention efforts in the form of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations were dramatically scaled back from Carter-era levels.
This work suggests that although politicians of all stripes may in principle support the idea of curing cancer or supporting cancer research, there are embedded issues in cancer policy that lend themselves to party politics. These elements include budgetary and regulatory politics, as well as general attitudes toward science policies. To begin with general attitudes toward science, again, it does not instantly strike many of us that supporting science would be a political football to be tossed about. And yet, Democrats and Republicans have strikingly different attitudes not only about science, but also about different types of science. For example, space policy, decisions about whether and when to send humans into outer space, has been shown to be a Republican issue. Why would space be connected with Republicans? From the beginning of the space race in the late 1950s, spaceflight has been connected with military competition with the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War; given Republican support for military issues, spaceflight tends to fall inside the greater realm of military policy.
Of late, there have also been trends within the Republican Party of less support for science funding in general. Although there hasn’t been any substantial research into this trend, there are some suggestions as to its origin. One possible source is the evangelical element of the Republican Party. In many fundamental churches, members are taught to discount basic tenets of science such as evolution and the Big Bang theory for a greater reliance on the teachings of the Bible. These pastors preach that scientists are continually changing their minds and their beliefs, whereas the Bible presents concrete revelations of God’s plans for the world. Some of these same churches also discount the value of higher education with its dominance by liberal professors, thus inculcating distaste, if not intense dislike, for elements of science and higher learning. Because the evangelical community has made up an increasing proportion of the Republican Party, it would only be natural for Republican politicians to adopt similar policy positions, discounting the role of and place for scientific research and development.
A further attitude that could contribute to the decline of Republican support for science is a growing libertarian dimension to Republican thought. This strain of ideology holds that government should be as small as possible, only involving itself in those areas where it absolutely must. The presidential campaigns of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 and by his son, Senator Rand Paul, in 2016 demonstrate this libertarian ideology. Senator Paul, along with other major Republican candidates, advocated reducing the scope of government and variously calling for the abolition of government agencies ranging from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to the Department of Education. Under this ideology, why should the government contribute to scientific development when it could reduce the scope of government? In reducing government, politicians could then cut the budget and then taxes.
Even for those Republicans who may not subscribe to libertarian or evangelical philosophies, many, if not the vast majority of, Republicans today support the overall reduction of the federal budget. The budgetary politics of the past several years reflect just how significant a policy position this has become. Republican desires to reduce the budget to reduce the deficit and debt have led to numerous budgetary stalemates and, in extreme cases, government shutdowns. Unfortunately, research and development has come in for a heavy hit in budgets along with other areas of government. Since 2006, government spending on research and development has fallen by 9.2 percent, or approximately $15 billion dollars. Thus, even if politicians wanted to increase spending on cancer research, they will immediately run into the problem of finding the money to pay for it in incredibly difficult budgetary times.
Finally, regulatory politics, a key element of cancer policy, necessarily colors cancer in a partisan light. Numerous scholars have noted the Republican aversion to imparting an excessive number of regulations. The classic example of this posture was the administration of Ronald Reagan, who came into office determined to alleviate the burden of what he saw as unnecessary regulations on industry. The Reagan ire for regulations fell particularly hard on the EPA for which Reagan nominated Anne Gorsuch to be the administrator. Under Gorsuch, the EPA came in for intense criticism, ultimately leading to the censure of Gorsuch by Congress. However, the Republican influence on regulatory politics has been felt elsewhere, for instance, with the 1994 Republican revolution, the George W. Bush administration, and the continued criticism by Republicans of what they see as excessive and illegal regulations put forward by the Obama administration. Because regulations form an essential and significant part of cancer policy, it is not hard to make the leap, then, that cancer, at least the regulatory element of it, is influenced by political party.
Excerpted from The Politics of Cancer: Malignant Indifference. By Wendy Whitman Cobb, published by Praeger. Copyright by Wendy Whitman Cobb, 2017.