Dear Mr. President: Seriously, please stop with these science “moonshots”

Dear Mr. President: Seriously, please stop with these science “moonshots”

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On Monday, US President Joe Biden will announce more information on his plan to end cancer. The president will use the 60th anniversary of President Kennedy’s legendary speech about putting a man on the moon to name a director for a new agency to make this happen, adding yet one more acronym to the US biomedical research enterprise.

And as was the case in 2016, it’s baffling that the government is evidently wasting its money on the National Cancer Institute, which despite receiving almost $7 billion a year apparently needs an entirely new agency—the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health—to actually cure cancer. What is especially troubling is that those concerns were evident in 2016, when then-Vice President Biden first proposed the idea, which we’ve dusted off below:

Original Article, January 14, 2016: During this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama announced that his vice president, Joe Biden, will lead a new science “moonshot” to put an end to cancer. According to an article on Medium posted by the vice president, this will do two things: increase resources devoted to fighting cancer and break down barriers that prevent sharing of information among cancer researchers.

The announcement drew a lot of praise from pundits—the snarkier Twitter commentators out there pointed out that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) failed to clap at this, marking him look heartless. More funding for cancer research sounds like a total no-brainer, doesn’t it? There’s just one problem—it’s a terrible idea.

At this point, let me give you a little background on where this editorial is coming from. It might be hard to understand why the car editor at a technology website is whining about science funding, but before moving to Ars full time in June last year, I spent six years working in a policy office at the National Institutes of Health. It’s a job that gave me a front row seat into how science policy actually works in the United States. Before that, I spent another six years as a research scientist, during which time I served in a couple of leadership roles with the National Postdoctoral Association (I also used to write science content for Ars, starting back in 2004).

What follows is my opinion, but it’s informed by over a decade of experience in the trenches (and a straw poll of friends and colleagues indicates to me I’m not off-base). However, it will annoy everyone I know working in advocacy. Here goes.

Mr. President and Mr. Vice President: science doesn’t need another moonshot, and it really doesn’t need another vaguely thought-out initiative dropped on it during a State of the Union address. What it needs is much more important—and probably much more difficult politically, because those needs are much less flashy. What science needs is stable, sustainable budget growth. Take the NIH budget and promise to grow it at a percent or two above inflation for a number of years. The number 10 would be good.

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