Stop the Slapfest: Why Scientists Need to Step Up in Support of a Cancer Moonshot
In the State of the Union address, President Obama challenged scientists with a John F Kennedy-inspired “moonshot” of curing cancer backed by a one billion dollar funding pledge. Obama’s announcement came on the heels of the death of Vice President Biden’s son Beau, whose life was cut short by brain cancer in 2015.
Roughly ten seconds after the moonshot was announced, many sciencers took their gloom blankets and smothered the hopes of the American public as best they could by dissolving into rifts on how data should be shared, the lack of funding for truly transformative research and that one billion dollars equals roughly $27 after all the special initiatives had been accounted for within the funding allocation. Every single one of these points was dead on accurate. There are too many moonshots and not enough money. We are tragically underfunded for Every. Single. Science. Mandate. But somewhere between these truths and the discovery lies the painfully neglected field of PR we leave to NIH. Scientists are wretched at PR, and it is killing us.
“Who cares? I’m a scientist, not a PR person. I deal in truths,” you say. This is totally fair and also totally ignorant of the point of moonshots. Here’s why it matters. Imagine hearing about a cool new restaurant that someone famous loves. And you go there and are greeted by a grumpy person at the door who promptly walks you in through the kitchen. In the kitchen, the staff is busy pulling the guts out of tonight’s dinner, scrubbing the dirt off the vegetables and doing all manner of necessary but unpalatable things. This is what academic science looks like to the public.
The point of moonshots is to get the folks who pay for science, the American public, feeling like cancer and Alzheimer’s disease are tractable problems we can solve. Because we can solve them. We can make more cancers into long-term manageable conditions instead diseases that kill the Beau Bidens of the world before their kids are out of middle school. We can do a better job of protecting brain cells from Alzheimer’s; we can identify environmental agents that accelerate disease progression and severity. And we are never going to do any of that by starting every single a public NIH funding announcement with a “where’s my chunk of the money” slap-fest.
Every single time someone asks you how things are going and you tell them about the drudgery of grants, and papers and funding, you are dragging them through the science kitchen, folks. Here’s what you do. Put them at a nice table. Get them a glass of wine and convince them science is a cool place to spend their money. Tell your family, friends and Congress Critters how excited you are about moonshots. Because, as Alec Balwin knows, folks…. ABC.