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Let’s Retire the Phrase: “We Need a Moon Shot to…[Fill in the Blank]“

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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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.

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  1. 1. geojellyroll 11:17 am 06/6/2011

    What a silly piece of fluff. Slow science news day?

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  2. 2. Dr_Zinj 1:36 pm 06/6/2011

    Words are very powerful motivators. use the right words, and you can easily manipulate people. For instance, get someone to insert the word "nazi" into a discussion, and you’ve effectively terminated any future logic in the conversation.

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  3. 3. Steve D 1:55 pm 06/6/2011

    The Apollo program was a perpetual target for anti-intellectuals resentful over the fact that it boosted American pride at a time they wanted the U.S. ground into the mud, it wasn’t a social program, and it did what it set out to do, something we can’t say of any of the programs that its critics wanted the money spent on instead. And forty years later, champions of programs that don’t work still chafe.

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  4. 4. Daniel35 2:44 pm 06/6/2011

    … to try to maintain our corrupt economic system that’s on it’s way to collapse.

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  5. 5. NoelG 3:17 pm 06/6/2011

    Moon shot, I feel still has some value, for sure it is prone to over use. But that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to seek its retirement. Given all the rubbish expressions around. I am inclined to agree with @geojellyroll: is this a slow news day?

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  6. 6. PompPomp 8:29 pm 06/6/2011

    @geojellyroll and noelG have hit the nail on the head. Where is your head when the human brain is obviously the most under-researched yet most promising field for reversing age old illnesses? Kennedy is trying desperately to reverse this blatant form of scientific indifference and you want to quibble about phraseology?!?

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  7. 7. fire1fl 8:31 pm 06/6/2011

    The article neglects what happened around the moon program by merely focusing on engineering. There were entirely new science curricula introduced in schools to develop scientists and engineers. The development of nearly every technology we have today was accelerated. The effort broadened to include nearly every scientific discipline from archeology to zoology. Those calling for a "moonshot" effort may be mistaken in their narrowness of goal choice, but not the intent of mustering our national resources on worthy (and yes, lofty) goals.

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  8. 8. JJJ1969 11:42 pm 06/6/2011

    There could be apt analogies to the "Moon shot", if medical research could be conducted in that way. Unfortunately, it’s an endeavour that is as
    politicized as much as the Superconducting Supercollider Project was in the 1990s. Every congressperson wants to know that research is going to a school or lab in their district so that they can say "Look, I brought home funding so that WE can cure cancer (or whatever)."

    Cancer is a group of mechanisms. It is actually several diseases. Some form tumors, some cause necrosis of tissue, some cause apoptosis.
    Obviously, it is not all the same. We simply cannot say that "We will kill cancer!" There are two reasons: 1) the FORM of cancer to be studied and
    defeated must be established, and 2) it cannot be done with a scatter-shot approach. If we want an analogy to the space program, we need to create a prime contractor with one or more sub-contractors. We can’t simply ship tax money in little (or big) pots to universities and labs simply for the purpose of building new buildings to install labs that MIGHT be used to cure cancer SOME DAY. This is an egregious waste of time (over 100 years) and money AND LIVES so that people can build careers and hold poster sessions and have grantee meetings and conferences just to publish papers! Oh, aren’t we great! We found a drug with horrendous side effects that may help a SMALL FRACTION of the people with ONE form of cancer to live a few more years with dysfunction and in agony. The questions that seem to go through the minds of some of the researchers may be: "But, if I CURE this form of cancer, what will I do for the rest of my career? I’ve built a department at a university. I have a lab or a building with my name on it! How can I simply go on to do SOMETHING ELSE???"

    THAT is why we’ve spent trillions of tax dollars and nearly 100 years trying to cure cancer. If only we could use the Moon shot mentality!
    If only…

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