Thursday, February 5, 2015

A radical proposal to fight cancer

I have a radical proposal to make for Canada. Here's the idea: Canada should eliminate its military, and redirect all military spending towards cancer research. It's not as crazy as it sounds.

Here's how it would work: The current military would establish a search & rescue force, and a humanitarian aid force. Appropriate personnel and equipment would be allocated to those forces. Then, all current offensive military equipment (fighter jets, tanks, artillery, gunships) would be sold. The proceeds of those sales would be used to assist transition of all military personnel who were not retained as part of the search & rescue or humanitarian aid forces.

From that point forward, the entire budget previously allocated to the Canadian military would be redirected to cancer research. We'd make a deal with the rest of the world: if you support and defend us, you can have royalty free licences for any advancements in cancer treatment and prevention we discover. I recognize this requires a renegotiation of our NATO membership, but the benefits accrue to every country willing to support us.

Let's face it: Canada's offensive military capability currently exists to fight wars in other parts of the world. While there are tangential benefits to Canadian security, our forces are most often used to stabilize situations in areas far from our borders. We have not had occasion to use military force against another nation on Canadian soil since the War of 1812. Given our geographic location, the only real threat to our sovereignty is the United States. No country in the world other than the US would dare attack us on our soil, not because they fear our military, but because they assume the US would bring its military might to our defense. In the event the US decided to attack us, the reality is our military would be unable to repel them.

I do not, in any way, wish to belittle the men and women in our military. They are dedicated, well trained, and by all accounts as good at what they do as any in the world. Rather, I simply question whether their mission is the best use of resources.

Canada spends $19 billion per year on the armed forces. It spends about $250 million per year on cancer research. The total spent in Canada on cancer research, including all private & public funds, is approximately $550 million. By redirecting military spending, we could increase cancer research spending over twenty fold. The impact could be astonishing.

Each year in Canada, almost 200,000 people are diagnosed with cancer. Over 75,000 die from it each year. Over 800,000 Canadians are currently living with a cancer that has been diagnosed in the past 10 years. Two out of every five Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetimes. One in four will die from it. Globally, there are over 14 million people diagnosed with cancer each year, and over 8 million deaths. As the population ages, it is expected that soon cancer will surpass heart disease as the number one cause of death in North America.

Canada's national health care system could help position us for one of the most promising area's of cancer research - data analysis. We now have tools available to cross-reference and analyse enormous amounts of data. The answers to cancer prevention and treatment may lie in the analysis of the sequenced genomes of millions of people with and without cancer, or in the analysis of proteins, environmental factors, or other health markers. If anonymized, detailed health and demographic data could be pulled in from all of the provincial health care systems, we could have a large enough data set to find the keys to unlock the mysteries of cancer that have so far been eluding us.

In addition to the obvious benefit to global human health, the economic benefits to Canada could be enormous. The development of Canada as a world leader in high tech biomedical research could reposition our economy away from cyclical resources and unsustainable manufacturing. We would attract the best and brightest in the world, and create spin-off industries in pharmaceuticals, data analysis, laboratory testing and biomedical manufacturing.

There is no doubt that our military assists people around the world. We help solve problems. The question to be asked is how can we devote our resources to have the maximum impact on problems relevant throughout the globe. The Gates Foundation has shown that with targeted dedication and resources, significant impacts can be made in improving global health. In 1980, the World Health Organization targeted smallpox, and eliminated it from the earth. Targeted, all-in efforts yield results.

Our withdrawal from overseas military work would likely have a minimal real world impact, as other countries would no doubt continue on. Our full commitment to cancer research, with a scale of resources never before marshaled, could do more global good than is possible with our armed forces. The military might of the US has led many to call it the "world's police". Let's make Canada the world's oncologist.