Is The Vice President’s Cancer ‘Moon Shot’ Really A Moon Shot?

As part of President Obama’s State of the Union address this year, he placed Vice President Biden in charge of an effort to boost the ongoing war on cancer.  From the prepared remarks:

“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer. Last month, he worked with this Congress to give scientists at the National Institutes of Health the strongest resources that they’ve had in over a decade. So tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done. And because he’s gone to the mat for all of us on so many issues over the past 40 years, I’m putting Joe in charge of Mission Control.”

So, press reports to the contrary, this ‘moon shot’ isn’t really new to the President’s remarks  The Vice President first announced his intentions last October.  And as with most things in a State of the Union, the details are found elsewhere.  Vice President Biden describes the plan in this Medium post.  The large goal is to achieve a decade’s work of advances in half the time.  To that end the Vice President is going to increase resources for cancer research and make it easier for researchers and others in the fight against cancer to share information and communicate.

I’ve expressed my disdain for the rhetoric of the moon shot before and nothing has changed for me since then.  What the Vice President wants to do make sense.  Boosting resources can help, but making it easier to use those resources and to make it easier for thousands of disparate researchers share progress and information helps stretch those resources even further.

But the details don’t mesh well with the concrete goal and timeframe of the Apollo project.  The original declaration of the ‘war on cancer’ in President Nixon’s 1971 State of the Union was closer in rhetoric to Apollo, but not as specific in its goals.

And, bottom line, while rocket science is complicated, ending just one kind of cancer is at least as hard.  And I think the history of the actual moonshot downplays that complexity.  So no, the Vice President’s ‘moon shot’ isn’t really one.  It’s another example of the politics of a program not matching the policy goals.  Aside from my cognitive dissonance over this mismatch, I just don’t know if it helps to invoke this rhetoric.  The Vice President was already working on this effort, and the vast majority of the researchers involved know how complex the endeavor is.  Why simplify it for the masses?  I don’t think it’s necessary, but I suppose it helps make a better speech.


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