The moment was beautiful, Obama announcing that Biden would direct our next public effort, a moonshot, to cure cancer. Of course, this will not happen with cancer or any other disease that comes to mind.
First, cancer is more than one disease. It affects multiple organs in multiple ways through multiple mechanisms. Most diseases that kill in the US right now could be described this way. Even diabetes, mostly driven by obesity, probably results from a variety of genetic and environmental mechanisms. If we are talking about a single, well-characterized disorder with a single cause, we might be able to do something in a 12-year window.
The bigger problem is we do not know enough about this stuff. When Sputnik launched, we had the same knowledge base as the Soviets. We understood rocketry and astroscience enough to make a moon landing happen. Sputnik pushed the resources to the project. The basic science and technology was available; it was an incremental, if huge, project.
We are not there with most forms of cancer. We do not understand the basic biology well enough yet.
After discovering insulin, Banting turned to cancer research. He made no inroads there. I can remember Nixon declaring war on cancer shortly after the moon landing. We have come a long way since then, but the battles still rage on.
If we really want to cure diseases, we need to fund a wide variety of research ranging from the most basic sciences to clinical studies. We can never predict what finding will provide the key to a breakthrough, no matter how good we believe our peer-review system may be. It may be in a seemingly unrelated field.
We need sustainable growth of the budgets for the NIH and NSF. That will, someday, help us overcome the multitude of cancers and other disorders that we face.