Pentagon cancer research budget comes under scrutiny

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 2:44 PM

As the Pentagon seeks to trim spending, there are some programs Congress believes the military can't do without. Among them: cancer research.

For almost 20 years, the Defense Department has been the recipient of more than $3.6 billion for cancer research. The programs have never been requested in any presidential budget, and are outside the Pentagon's traditional mission of battlefield medicine and research.

Nonetheless, lawmakers, prodded by grass-roots lobbyists, have annually added in the money as part of the appropriations process.

With Congress now debating a spending bill for the remainder of this fiscal year - and both parties calling for budgetary restraint - lawmakers have shown no inclination to curtail this spending. The Senate Appropriations Committee recently added $250 million to the fiscal 2011 Continuing Resolution for cancer research.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said that the Pentagon, faced with mounting fiscal pressures, plans to cut projected spending by $78 billion over the next five years. He has also acknowledged that "not every defense dollar is sacred or well-spent."

But the inclusion of funds on programs that are outside of the Pentagon's core mission highlights the persistence of grass-roots organizations that have come to depend on the defense budget as an sacrosanct source of funding.

Spending on cancer research represents a tiny drop in the bucket of the Pentagon's budget. But at a hearing earlier this month, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on emerging threats, questioned whether aspects of the Defense Department's medical research on cancer should remain a priority at a time of tightened budgets.

He noted that much of the research has a "tenuous connection to the warfighter or even our service people" and that funding had been "foisted upon the department by Congress."

Even though cancer research "may not have been entirely for the military, it has had a great benefit, as have many of those kinds of efforts," Marilyn Freeman, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for research and technology, told Thornberry, noting that breast cancer is a "huge issue" for women in the military.

Nevertheless, when it comes to priorities for the fiscal 2012 budget, "we're going to have to look at that hard," she said, referring to the cancer research.

The Pentagon's cancer research programs were initiated with a $25 million congressional earmark in 1992 for research on breast cancer. Since then, annual appropriations have increased, and the Pentagon's Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs have expanded to focus on prostate, lung and other kinds of cancers. Most of the spending has gone to individual grants managed through contractors.

The National Breast Cancer Coalition says the development of the breast cancer research program alone - the largest cancer research program funded through the Pentagon - has attracted more than 40,000 research proposals over the years. In 2009, the group noted, 214 members of the U.S. House and the 57 senators signed letters supporting $150 million for the breast cancer research program.

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