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A cure for cancer. Or a mega-yacht…Hmm

You will hear a lot of exciting catch-phrases about biomedical research and drug discovery for cancer in the news in the next few days. President Obama is about to sign a “sweeping”, “breakthrough” “revolutionary” bill with the fancy name – “21st century cures”. It has money for increased medical research, addiction and mental health treatment, and even a “cancer moonshot”. Much hope is placed on increased funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Reuters/Carlos Barria

More money to the NIH is indeed the way to make sure breakthrough drugs are discovered. It is the sponsor of choice for much academic research in life sciences. And the biggest reason why a lion’s share of new drug targets are identified in the US. NIH grants support thousands of (lowly paid) professors, post-docs, researchers and support staff in universities throughout the US, doing painstaking research.

Unfortunately, the money is rather miniscule for such high aspirations. About $400M a year over 10 years (let’s call this X). Here are some of the things that this will buy (in order to put things in perspective):

X + $100M: will buy you the yacht “Serene” – recently purchased by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman on a whim

X * 4 – will pay for the average annual bonus to a single high performing hedge fund

X/3 – is the amount spent by the campaign of Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries to win zero states (4 out of 2363 delegates)

X * 35 – is what Glaxo Smith Kline spends on sales and marketing each year

And even “X” is only pledged – subject to the whims of congressional appropriations over the next ten years.

Perhaps all the excitement around cancer moonshots needs to be tempered. Everybody wants a cure for cancer. But the resources spent on the effort is laughably small. Especially compared to the trinkets of the super-rich.


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