President Asks for $1 Billion for Cancer 'Moonshot' Funding

Roxanne Nelson, BSN, RN

February 02, 2016

President Obama is now asking Congress for $1 billion to send cancer to the moon.

In a follow-up to his State of the Union address, in which the president announced a national initiative to find a cure for cancer, he is requesting the funds to make this goal a reality.

In his speech, President Obama referred to his proposal as a "moonshot," and put Vice President Joe Biden, who recently lost his oldest son to brain cancer, in charge of "mission control" in the remaining months of the administration.

The inaugural meeting of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force took place yesterday, but was closed to both the public and the press.

Although details are sparse, the initiative is already underway, according to the White House, and $195 million is already in place for this year. President Obama will ask Congress for an additional $755 million in the 2017 budget, which will be released next week.

The White House gave a few details about where the funds would go. Spending on immunotherapy will be boosted and data sharing will be a priority, because researchers tend to work in isolation and not share proprietary work. Other areas of focus include the development of vaccines, the detection of cancer, genetics, and pediatric oncology.

According to a report published in the Washington Post, the $195 million allocated this year will go to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the biggest beneficiary of the funding. The NIH will also receive the majority of the $755 million that will be requested for 2017. Smaller amounts will be doled out to the US Food and Drug Administration, the Pentagon, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest attempted to put the initiative in perspective by pointing out that the public should not expect daily headlines announcing monumental breakthroughs.

"That's why I think the 'moonshot' analogy that the president has drawn here is appropriate. It was President Kennedy who laid out this goal, but the goal was not realized in the Kennedy presidency," Earnest said, according to a report published in USA Today.

"What he did was he set an ambitious vision and began to orient the federal government in the direction of accomplishing this goal, and the results were realized a number of years later, but sooner than anybody thought. And we're hoping for a similar outcome when it comes to fighting cancer," he added.

Not Going to the Moon on $1 Billion

However, some experts wonder if $1 billion is enough to even make a dent toward progress. Rather than it being a cancer moonshot, that amount of money might be better described as a "cancer slingshot," according to a report published in the New York Times.

"The good news is that the budget is no longer being cut," Peter Adamson, MD, chair of the Children's Oncology Group, told the newspaper. But we are "not going to the moon on $1 billion," he noted.

Cancer research takes time and money — a lot of money — as previous endeavors have proven. Major advances have taken years and many billions to achieve. "The administration's $1 billion commitment is not enough to fund even half of the cost of a new cancer medicine, according to a widely cited estimate of drug development costs," the New York Times reports.

A similar point was made in a Bloomberg report. It noted that Obama's plan to spend $1 billion to accelerate research on a cure for cancer is just a fraction of what President Kennedy spent on the nation's actual moonshot. In fact, in 1961, NASA estimated that it would cost $20 billion to put a man on the moon, which is $160 billion in 2016 dollars.

And, on average, it costs about $1.4 billion to develop a single drug and bring it to market. Obama has proposed spending four times as much — $4.1 billion — over the next 3 years to teach schoolchildren how to write basic computer code, according to the report.

"Spending only $1 billion on a so-called moonshot is an absurdity," Ted Okon, executive director of the Community Oncology Alliance, told Bloomberg. "If you're going to have a moonshot, you're talking about spending a lot more money on it. One billion dollars is not going to get you a rocket ship, much less off the ground."

For now, it remains to be seen how the Republican-controlled Congress will react to this request, and whether the $1 billion in funding will ever become a reality.

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