Cancer research is an incredibly important endeavor. The advancements being made by scientists across the country and the world will go on to save countless lives, the value of which is immeasurable. The proposed federal spending budget released by the White House on Thursday includes a cut of nearly twenty percent to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which could take away millions of dollars to this important research.
In response, leaders from the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute – which receives more NIH grants than any other cancer research facility in the country held a press conference to criticize the proposed cuts, as reported in The Seattle Times.
And that is a very bleak opening for a blog post with such an optimistic title. That is because running alongside to the story of missed opportunities to save lives is the one that came from Joe Biden. His was of hope and possibility, and for an hour at SXSW last week, I heard and believed.
Preparation is everything at SXSW. The longer I was there, the more committed I became to the nightly ritual of meticulously planning the following day’s activities. With so many people eager to hear from the innovative minds that SXSW brings, it was not uncommon to find many lectures at capacity at arrival. This was especially true for Joe Biden’s speech, which required collecting a special wristband hours before he was set to speak
When the time came for him to take the stage, I headed to the Austin Convention Center without a wristband, hoping to find a seat in the overflow room set up to accommodate high demand. That overflow room proved to be a necessity, because by the time I arrived, there were only a handful of seats remaining. And even though we weren’t in the actual room with Mr. Biden, the excitement was still palpable. It could have been that the collective nostalgia for the world of eight weeks ago was so strong that it could have been measured in equal years. Either way, the stage was set for a great speech, and Biden certainly delivered.
(Featured image: Ricardo B. Brazziell / Associated Press)
Biden opened with a sentiment he has expressed many times, beginning his speech with, “my name is Joe Biden and I am Jill Biden’s husband.” From there, he framed his continued plans to complete the Cancer Moonshot Initiative he began late last year in the story of his late son’s battle with the disease. It was that tragedy that in part influenced his decision not to run for president. “No one should ever run for president unless they are willing to give every ounce of their energy towards it” he said, adding, “I had one regret in making the decision not to run, and that was I would have loved to have been the president who presided over the end of cancer as we know it.”
From there, Biden shifted his focus to the audience, speaking to the many ways that everyone can contribute to the fight against cancer. The possibility of decreased funding aside, the biggest challenge to cancer research isn’t actually the research. It is collaboration and communication between those involved in the work. Biden recalled that for one of the more experimental treatments his son Beau received, doctors at the hospital did not have the technical infrastructure to share CAT scans with leading researchers at another institution. Committed to progress, one doctor literally took pictures on his iPhone and sent the images via text. But strides are being made by both Biden and the incredible network of researchers, doctors, professors and countless others working towards a cure. Biden began telling a series of stories about collaboration by saying “let me define hope for you”, a welcome message for many reasons these days.
In the CommLead Graduate program at the University of Washington, one of the first things we are taught is to look for “out of domain” solutions to problems. That means leveraging seemingly unrelated resources to help generate truly creative and innovative ideas. Biden demonstrated this perfectly when, looking for ways to improve radiation therapy for cancer patients, he turned to an unlikely source, NASA. “I don’t know anyone that knows more about radiation than them” he said.
And that collaboration continues all the way to our neck of the woods up here in Seattle. At one point, Biden asked “what does Amazon have to do with cancer research?” Turns out they have donated free cloud storage so the work of researchers across the world can become more accessible. And the genomic data that is being stored by Amazon has already been accessed 80 million times. That, Biden said, is why there is reason to hope.
And according to Biden, there is reason to believe that collaboration can continue all the way to the political world. Perhaps the most impactful line from his talk was when Biden stated “the only bipartisan issue left in this country is cancer research”, citing his work with Democrats and Republicans alike to help pass the Cancer Moonshot bill that allocated $6.3 billion towards this important work. “I am optimistic about the American people. Given the chance, they will never, never, never let their country down. At their core, Republicans and Democrats are decent people. I’m confident we can break through it.”
Cancer is a scary thing. And these are certainly scary times. But I walked away from Joe Biden’s speech at SXSW feeling at least a little bit more hopeful. I can take solace in the dedication of people like Joe Biden. I can draw inspiration from his calls to collaborate, and determination to find my own way to contribute to something bigger than myself.
Thank you Joe Biden, you truly are an inspiration.
Link to full talk: