Are Healthcare Moonshots Effective?

When President John F Kennedy committed to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade during his 1961 speech to Congress, he rallied the nation behind that single goal. What happened after was an explosion of innovation and investment in the space program. Kennedy’s “moonshot” has become a template for rallying support for audacious goals. We now have moonshot projects across many industries…but are these types of projects effect in healthcare?

Cancer Moonshot

A decade ago, the largest cancer hospital in the US – MD Anderson – launched a moonshot effort against eight specific forms of cancer. At the time, the project leaders expected to spend as much as $3 billion over the next 10 years. The goal was to find cures and lower deaths from the cancers targeted by the project.

On their website, MD Anderson highlights some of their notable achievements as part of their moonshot effort.

As Vice President, in 2016, Joe Biden, launched the Whitehouse Cancer Moonshot to “accelerate the rate of progress against cancer”. As President, Biden has renewed the moonshot in 2022 with the goal of “reducing the death rate from cancer by at least 50% over the next 25 years, and improving the experience of people and their families living with and surviving cancer”.

 I have no doubt that a lot of progress has been made in the fight against cancer and that there has been value for MD Anderson and the US federal government in labeling their efforts as a moonshot. However, I can’t help but wonder if the moonshot designation has been effective.

Moonshot Criteria

Scott D. Anthony and Mark Johnson wrote an article for Harvard Business Review in 2013 where they outlined three criteria for a moonshot:

  1. It inspires
  2. It is credible
  3. It is imaginative

I would argue that moonshots also must be able to show measurable progress. There’s no point to a moonshot if you can’t demonstrate meaningful accomplishment as you march towards the goal.

Reducing cancer deaths is a very noble and inspiring goal. Given the advancements in medicine and technology, reducing deaths by 50% over the next 25 years is within the realm of possibility. But is the cancer moonshot imaginative? I’m not sure.

Healthcare Moonshots

To be fair, I’m picking on the cancer moonshot only because it is high profile, not because I believe it has been ineffective. There are numerous other “healthcare moonshots” that have popped up over the past 10 years like the Interoperability moonshot,  and the Patient Safety Moonshot. I can’t comment on their effectiveness, but I can say that it is hard to find information about meaningful progress and how those are funded/not funded.

The funding of healthcare moonshots is what concerns me. Healthcare research follows funding. Where money is available, research flows in that direction. When governments and institutions announce moonshot programs, there is usually dollars made available to fund research that is in the direction of achieving the moonshot goal. It only makes sense.

However, by focusing funding in one narrow area of healthcare, pull talent and attention from other areas? For example, is kidney research suffering because more scientists and companies are focusing on cancer?

In addition, moonshots tend to motivate people to look for breakthrough results. Although noble, this flies in the face of historic science where slow methodical progress has been the norm. Are seeking flash when we should be seeking substance? For example, how much money is being dedicated to cancer prevention versus treatment. I would argue that reducing harmful chemicals in our food, air, and homes could help reduce cancer as much as a new drug. Yet how much is being invested in the drug vs the preventative measure?

Johnathan M. Gitlin makes several of these arguments in his piece in ARS Technica: “The way to improve the health of our nation isn’t another moonshot where we’re not quite sure what we even mean by “Moon.” Just find a way to deliver predictable, sustainable funding.”

Join the next HCLDR Tweetchat on Tuesday January 24th at 8:30pm ET (for your local time click here) when we will discuss the following questions:

  • Q1 Other than the Genome Project, are there healthcare moonshots that you believe are successful or at least, interesting?
  • Q2 Are healthcare moonshots effective? Do we need them to motivate investment?
  • Q3 Do moonshot initiatives in healthcare siphon too much attention and investment from other areas of healthcare?
  • Q4 What advice do you have or message would you like to send to the leaders of healthcare moonshots?


“Cancer Moonshot”, The White House,, accessed 23 January 2023

“Patient Safety Moonshot”, Patient Safety Movement,, accessed 23 January 2023

Anthony, Scott D. and Johnson, Mark. “What a Good Moonshot Is Really For”, Harvard Business Review, 14 May 2013,, accessed 23 January 2023

Kubick, Wayne. “Another Type of Moonshot: Project Gemini”, HL7 International, 25 September 2018,, accessed 23 January 2023

Gitlin, Jonathan M. “Dear Mr. President: Seriously, please stop with these science “moonshots””, ARS Technica, 12 September 2022,, accessed 23 January 2023

Rodrigues, Carl. “Should You Pursue The Moonshot”, Forbes, 21 January 2021,, accessed 23 January 2023

Image Credit

Photo by David Besh:

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