The Obama administration announced on Monday that it hoped to spend $1 billion to fund a cancer “moonshot” in search of a cure. But in the costly world of biological research, such a sum may be better described as a cancer slingshot, researchers said.
“The good news is that the budget is no longer being cut,” said Dr. Peter Adamson, the chairman of the Children’s Oncology Group, which conducts national clinical trials. “But we’re not going to the moon on $1 billion.”
The stated goal of the initiative is to spur a decade’s worth of advances in cancer research in five years. The administration will ask for $755 million for cancer-related research in its budget for the 2017 fiscal year, officials said. And the initiative will help oversee $195 million in new funding provided to the National Institutes of Health for the current fiscal year.
But the administration has neither the time nor the money to come close to achieving its goal in an area in which major advances often take a decade and many billions to achieve. The administration’s $1 billion commitment is not enough to fund even half of the cost of a new cancer medicine, according to a widely cited estimate of drug development costs.
Still, the White House has made the effort a centerpiece of its agenda as it faces a recalcitrant Congress and a political season that has stolen much of the spotlight.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said the cancer initiative was one of three major priorities that President Obama planned to discuss on Tuesday during a White House meeting with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.
An unstated goal of the initiative is to help Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. honor the life of his son Beau, who died from brain cancer last year. Mr. Biden’s very public grief transfixed Washington and led to an outpouring of sympathy from both Republicans and Democrats. One of the most emotional moments of Mr. Obama’s final State of the Union speech last month was when he turned around and said he was putting Mr. Biden “in charge of mission control” for the cancer moonshot.
“For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” Mr. Obama said to a rare round of bipartisan applause.
Last week, the administration announced the creation of a cancer task force to be led by Mr. Biden, and its first meeting took place on Monday.
Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, welcomed the new money to fight cancer, though it represents a small increase for an agency with a 2016 budget of $32 billion, and he acknowledged that progress against the disease will continue to be incremental.
“But slow incremental progress isn’t as good as fast incremental progress,” Dr. Collins said.
The administration said the new money would fund eight areas of cutting-edge research, including cancer vaccine development, early detection, immunotherapy, enhanced data sharing and pediatric cancer. Some of the money will be used to reshuffle the way the Food and Drug Administration considers applications for products that affect cancer. Those applications are now sent to different divisions within the agency depending on whether the product is a drug, a vaccine or a diagnostic test.
“Better integration at the F.D.A. could really make a difference,” said Ellen Sigal, the chairwoman and founder of Friends of Cancer Research, an advocacy group.
Despite the relatively modest investment, some researchers said that attention from the White House could help spur changes that money could not buy.
“This is not a moonshot, since there’s not nearly enough money for such a thing,” said Dr. Robert Cook-Deegan, a research professor at Duke University. “But if they could spur a change in the culture of cancer research, that would be an important legacy.”