The following story was reported during The Student Journalist Program’s five-day Summer Newsroom Workshop in August, 2016.
Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot has laid the groundwork for accelerated cancer research that could benefit millions of people. Now, with the clock for funding ticking, the key question is whether Congress will pay for it.
The White House and Senate Republicans proposed drastically different amounts of money for cancer research: President Obama pledged $755 million for the moonshot in 2017; Republicans in the Senate suggested $356.2 million, equal to the 2016 level.
Obama announced the moonshot in his State of the Union Address to great fanfare, comparing the effort to cure cancer to the moon landing in the 1960s. Obama placed Biden, whose son Beau died of brain cancer in May 2015, “in charge of mission control.”
The Republican response has been favorable in comparison to their outrage toward many Obama initiatives. “We have an incredible opportunity before us in 2016 to make a positive and lasting difference in paving the way for more life-saving cures and treatments," House Energy and Commerce chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement right after the State of the Union. "A better future for patients. A better future for their loved ones. The talk of a ‘moonshot’ is the exact mindset we need - America can and should lead the way.”
Through the first months of the moonshot, many government agencies have been working on a plan to show the public, and Congress, how best to direct funding to quicken cancer research. A panel of cancer research experts aims to release a report in September to detail how the National Cancer Institute would ideally distribute the money. The goal is that the moonshot will continue after the Obama administration ends.
The Cancer Moonshot Task Force, which was created soon after the State of the Union, will also release a report by the end of the year that will show how agencies have cooperated and how the task force’s broader effort is working.
The task force is particularly focused on creating partnerships between the public and private sectors. On June 28, the White House announced 39 of these partnerships between federal government agencies and private foundations, corporations or universities.
The NCI is one player among about 20, including departments ranging from Commerce to Veterans Affairs, on the task force. In the 79 years that the NCI has been researching and doling out grants, this is the most promising time ever for cancer research, spokesman Peter Garrett said.
“Understanding the complexity of cancer is where we have made a lot of progress,” Garrett said, adding that scientists now understand cancer to be not one disease but many different ones, allowing them to treat patients on a more individual level.
“I think what’s really exciting is that there’s so much consensus on the idea that there are really good ideas to fund right now,” Garrett said. “There are really specific things that we see we could do to actually attain a different outcome with certain kinds of cancers than where we’ve been.”
Lyric Jorgenson, the Deputy Executive Director of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, is also confident that the moonshot has proven this year that it deserves funding in the future. Jorgenson said that the work the agencies involved in the task force have done will show Congress that the moonshot effort should keep get the funding it wants.
There is another unavoidable challenge in 2017: Biden will be leaving office.
“The vice president, as the chair of the task force, is integrally deep in the process,” Jorgenson said. Biden gets routine briefings, publicizes the effort in his speeches, sets the task force’s priorities and makes sure that the cooperators share data efficiently.
Jorgenson said that having someone as high-ranking in the federal government as Biden passionately leading the effort is important because he can cut red tape and grease wheels, advantages that the research community did not necessarily have before. She is not too worried about what comes after Biden leaves office, though.
Jorgenson has reason to be hopeful, at least about Biden’s involvement after the 2016 election, depending on its result. Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton recently endorsed the program. “As president, I will take up the charge. My administration will carry out the mission the Vice President has set,” she said in a statement.