Fighting Cancer Must Have “The Urgency Of Now” Says Joe Biden

In a SXSW keynote, the former vice president argues that the effort is about data—and that technologists should help.

Fighting Cancer Must Have “The Urgency Of Now” Says Joe Biden
Joe Biden Photo: Flickr user Kelly Kline Photo: Flickr user Kelly Kline

In a speech that started out subdued and got more passionate, stirring, and emotional as he went on, former Vice President Joe Biden told a packed audience at the SXSW conference in Austin, TX, about the year he spent leading the Obama administration’s Cancer Moonshot Task Force. He shared how those lessons have shaped the work that he and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, plan to do with their Biden Cancer Initiative.


The work of the Cancer Moonshot Task Force and the Biden Cancer Initiative is often framed in terms of finding a cure. But Biden said that in many cases, what people with cancer long for is a few extra weeks to walk a daughter down the aisle, see a baby born, or get finances in order to prevent a home being lost. He referenced John F. Kennedy’s original initiative to put a human being on the moon: “He talked about the effort to go to the moon as a commitment that the American people had made and were unwilling to postpone. That was his phrase.”

He challenged the techies in the SXSW audience to devote as much energy to helping researchers gain access to the data and tools they need in order to beat cancer as they have to letting him use his smartphone to perform tasks such as seeing whether a particular check has cleared and looking up movie listings.

Too often, Biden said, anti-cancer progress is being hobbled by researchers’ inability to share information between teams and across discplines. “We can solve all these problems,” Biden said. “They’re technological problems, [not] a cancer problem. We need your help, we need your help.”

A Year Of Learnings

The Obama White House’s anti-cancer task force grew, Biden said, out of an offhand remark he made when announcing in October 2015 that he wouldn’t run for the Democratic nomination for president. Biden, who had lost his son Beau to brain cancer the previous May, said that he had only one regret: He would have liked to have been president when cancer was cured. During his final State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled the moonshot effort to find a cancer cure and put Biden in charge of it.

“When he gave me the sign, he gave me all of the authority of the president to go through with this,” Biden explained. “I could hire, fire, set priorities. I didn’t have to check.” As he delved into the project, he said, “I learned that we have to approach cancer at this moment with the urgency of now.”

As Biden spent time with cancer experts, he concluded that those at different institutions, with different types of expertise, too often worked in isolation, in part because they lacked tools to share their data and discoveries. It was a lesson that hit close to home: When his son was undergoing treatment for cancer, Biden said, the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center was unable to transmit CAT scans to the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center because they stored such data in different systems. (He added that his son-in-law, a doctor, would digitize the scans by snapping a photo of them with his phone.)


The more he learned, the more Biden focused his energy on facilitating collaboration. In June 2016, he hosted the Cancer Moonshot Summit, which drew 400 experts to Washington, D.C. to discuss ways to work together. Just as important, he added, 7,000 people held 3,000 local meetings—”every state, Guam, and Puerto Rico”—that generated “a torrent” of ideas for cross-disciplinary efforts.

The same month, Biden said, he helped spearhead the National Cancer Institute Genomic Data Commons, a unified repository of genomic information on 30,000 individuals for use in cancer research. He also negotiated ten international memorandums of understanding with eight countries to share such data.

Whither The Moonshot Now?

After Donald Trump won the presidential election, Biden and his wife announced their intention to spend much of the rest of their lives in the fight against cancer in all its forms via the Biden Cancer Initiative. The effort amounts to a privatized version of the Obama administration’s moonshot: Last month, the Bidens’ foundation announced the first hires for the Cancer Initiative, including the former director of the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force and others members of that team.

For all the private-sector money that’s being invested in cancer research, the bulk of it is still provided by taxpayers: “billions and billions of dollars,” Biden said in a Carl Sagan-esque voice that got a laugh from the audience. In December, the Senate passed and President Obama signed a $6.3 billion bill to fund drug treatment research. As part of this legislation, “the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, a tough partisan, rose up and moved that the U.S. Senate rename $1.8 billion of cancer research for Beau Biden—the Beau Biden initiative,” Biden said.

He remains convinced that Democrats and Republicans will work together to fund research even if they’re at odds about almost everything else. (During his eight years as vice president, Biden noted, he was known as the “White House optimist.”) Biden said that he hoped that the new administration—”once they get organized”—will commit to it with the same conviction he had. “I’m not being facetious,” he clarified.

For now, though, the Obama administration’s pages on the effort are missing and a search for “cancer moonshot” returns zero results.


His voice rising, Biden ended his speech by once again calling the audience to invest their knowledge and creativity in work that can help cancer research: “I am unwilling to postpone for one day longer the things we can do now to extend people’s life and so should you. We can make enormous, enormous, enormous progress.”


About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.