June 6, 2011 | 8
In late May, Patrick Kennedy, the former congressman and the son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, gathered a group of luminaries to launch "One Mind for Research," which coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of his uncle’s call to trek to our natural satellite. This "moon shot" for the brain was intended as a targeted push to address the gaping need for neurological disease and mental illness treatments.
Kennedy’s motivation comes from personal experience: his father’s glioblastoma and his own bouts with depression. More research for neuroscience and the money to fund it would be a good thing. Only 16 percent of all drugs under development make it to market. But if you look at the success rate for the category of central nervous system drugs by themselves, that percentage halves, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. It would be great to get another $1.5 billion a year for brain science to tackle diseases like Huntington’s and schizophrenia, the goal of the "One Mind" endeavor.
The problem comes with the "moon shot" rhetoric. The original moon expedition involved targeted engineering and material science intended to make sure that the astronauts would get off the moon’s surface and back through the Earth’s atmosphere with something more than sustained prayer. (And, of course, there was the non-engineering side of this exercise: a PR push to get back at the Soviets for Sputnik and Gagarin’s spin around the globe.)
We went to the moon and back more than once, mission accomplished. Things start to blur, though, when the focus shifts to brain (or really any medical) science. Can we really bring the same set of focused objectives for brain cancer (cell proliferation) to neurodegenerative diseases (cell death)?
Moon shots, and their rhetorical equivalents, have become recurring (and perhaps detrimental) memes in the scientific community. At its current pace, the ongoing War on Cancer will probably far outpace in length the Hundred Years War. And The Decade of the Brain (the 1990s) will be followed, in endless loops, by new 10-year increments, each of which merit being slapped with the same label.
Bad things happen when we start down this road. As George Orwell noted in "Politics and the English Language," the misuse of words corrupts clear thinking: "As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse." Orwell suggested getting rid of every word or idiom that has outlived its usefulness. "Moon shot" and similar metaphors are ripe for retirement.