For many of the 18,000 people who were in New Orleans last week for the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, the highlight came when US vice-president Joseph Biden took the stage. Biden heads the US National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, which aims to double the pace of cancer research. He has consulted with hundreds of cancer researchers during his ‘listening tour’ to lay groundwork for the programme.

Biden seems to have been paying attention. He ran through a list of familiar obstacles posed by what he called “cancer politics” — the difficulties in conducting interdisciplinary research and sharing data, and the lack of incentives to reproduce published results, among others. But it was when he made a joke about how long it takes to get a federal grant — “It’s like asking Derek Jeter to take several years off to sell bonds to build Yankee Stadium,” he said, referring to a famous baseball player — that it really hit home. The audience laughed and clapped; a few even gasped in surprise. The realization struck: the vice-president was clued up.

Biden made it clear that he was not the only one who was listening. At a recent nuclear-security summit with heads of state gathered round, US President Barack Obama began by noting that many of them had asked about Biden’s cancer initiative. Several countries, Biden said, then joined with the United States in a memorandum of understanding about how they could work together to fight cancer.

Are they right to be so enthusiastic? Certainly the flaws in Biden’s plan — not least the name — should not distract from its potential.

His National Cancer Moonshot Initiative could yet receive US$1 billion in funding: not enough to ‘cure’ cancer, obviously, but perhaps enough to make significant changes in how cancer research is done if scientists help to target the money properly. And yes, the implications could yet spread beyond US borders — particularly if international researchers weigh in with their thoughts about how best to accelerate the pace.

The US National Cancer Institute has made it clear that it wants to hear recommendations from the community, and has a website dedicated to stimulating participation (see This participation need not be restricted to US researchers: international scientists and clinicians should submit recommendations, too.

And, if the US project is as well received elsewhere as Biden claims, then scientists in those nations should look for ways to band together and marry their unique resources. Some countries have meticulous databases of health outcomes; others may have unique computing power or long-running longitudinal studies. And researchers in all countries face similar challenges of data sharing, reproducibility and interdisciplinary research.

These topics are also not cancer-specific: researchers in other fields have much to offer — and to gain. Biden said that after Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he appointed Biden head of the moonshot initiative, one of the first people to contact him was the US energy secretary Ernest Moniz. The Department of Energy has supercomputing power that could aid cancer researchers, the secretary said. Researchers from other fields can bring fresh perspectives to and reap the rewards of a coherent cancer-research strategy.

In a US Congress that is paralysed by partisan bickering, the fight against cancer should find common support from lawmakers. Researchers can come together and show them the way.