Cancer ‘Moonshot’ Task Force Holds First Meeting

While I’m on record about having problems with the rhetoric of moonshots, I am encouraged by other aspects of the cancer initiative pushed by Vice President Biden mentioned in the 2016 State of The Union address (though started last year).  On Monday the Task Force for the effort held its first meeting, just days after the White House circulated this memo concerning the Task Force.

Chaired by the Vice President, the task force is big and composed of top level executive branch and White House officials.  Members include heads of the Departments of Defense, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Energy and Veterans Affairs.  Members also include heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.  The National Cancer Advisory Board is not represented in the Task Force, but is named as one of the many expert groups the Task Force could consult in its work.

Perhaps the number of different agencies involved demonstrates the breadth of cancer research across the federal government and underlies the challenges in coordinating those efforts.

The Task Force must act quickly.  Per the memorandum, it has until December 31 of this year to conduct its review of existing cancer research, therapy and treatments and provide its recommendations.  They will cover, at a minimum, how to:

  • Accelerate our understanding of cancer, and its prevention, early detection, treatment, and cure;
  • Improve patient access and care;
  • Support greater access to new research, data, and computational capabilities;
  • Encourage development of cancer treatments;
  • Identify and address any unnecessary regulatory barriers and consider ways to expedite administrative reforms;
  • Ensure optimal investment of Federal resources; and
  • Identify opportunities to develop public-private partnerships and increase coordination of the Federal Government’s efforts with the private sector, as appropriate.

This does appear to be a long list, but keep in mind that the Vice President was inquiring about this effort at least as early as last fall, and the focus of the project – all moonshot notions to the contrary – is to focus on changes that can be done relatively easily.

The Task Force meeting was paired with another White House announcement – of increased federal money for the effort.  The initiative will have $195 million of the fiscal year 2016 National Institutes of Health (NIH) allotment, and $755 million of dedicated cancer money in the fiscal year 2017 budget from the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration.  With additional investments from the Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Departments the total investment will top $1 billion over two years.

And while that is a large amount, the expense of biomedical research highlights how much this project isn’t really a moonshot.  The money is going to support increased access and availability at least as much as it will boost new research and treatments.  The goal is to make finding the cure(s) easier, not to find those cures.  And by the time people become disappointed that this project didn’t really get to the ‘moon’ everyone directly involved will be out of office.

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