By Chris Adams

Clifton Leaf, a top magazine editor and author, says cancer research was once a risk-taking, collaborative effort.

“It’s a very different environment today,” Leaf said. “It’s a system now where the day-to-day incentives are misaligned with the goals.”

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, he described how the current cancer research culture puts disproportionate emphasis on applying for grants on problems about which much is already known and being first author on scientific papers. That makes it tough for young or pioneering researchers to break out.

Leaf (bio, book page, Twitter) is a cancer survivor, the editor-in-chief of Fortune magazine and also author of “The Truth in Small Doses: Why We're Losing the War on Cancer-and How to Win It.” He’s the only journalist to be given the honor of holding grand rounds at the National Cancer Institute. The book and his talk for NPF fellows detailed what went right in the early years of the war on cancer – and what’s gone wrong since then.

He told the story of researcher Dr. Denis Burkitt, who studied childhood lymphoma in Africa more than five decades ago. After substantial progress identifying and diagnosing the disease in his first three decades, things have stalled. Today, Burkitt’s lymphoma is only a little better understood and is still common in children.

That battle against one cancer is replicated against many others. Indeed, despite a five-decade struggle against the disease, more than 1.8 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in 2020 and 600,000 will die from it.

There have been promising breakthroughs in the last two decades. But those successes run against headwinds that show no sign of abating.

Leaf’s advice for reporters:  Send time in the trenches, talking with researchers in person whenever possible. Dig into data, and be sure to understand definitions, such as the difference between deaths and age-adjusted death rates.  And don’t be afraid to ask the “dumb” questions

“If an ‘expert’ can’t explain it to you, it’s often because the ‘expert’ doesn’t understand it,” he said.