In an emotional talk at South by Southwest on Sunday afternoon, former Vice President Joe Biden described his frustration with government silos preventing cancer research from moving forward and described the work he and his wife, Jill Biden, are doing with the Biden Foundation cancer initiative.
The so-called Cancer Moonshot work, which Joe and Jill Biden say they plan to devote the rest of their lives to, was the topic of a much-anticipated presentation at the conference, where government talk has taken center stage amid a divisive political climate.
Joe Biden stopped short of devoting significant time criticizing President Donald Trump’s administration, but did draw applause at one point for referencing Trump by suggesting that not caring about clean air or water is correlated to the fight against cancer.
“It frustrates me,” Biden said, without calling Trump by name.
Instead, after being introduced by his wife, Biden spent the bulk of his hour-long Austin Convention Center talk describing what work has been done on the cancer initiative and the work that needs to be done going forward.
In particular, Biden said, 50 years of walls erected between different disciplines need to be broken down.
“If we did nothing more than break down the silos of preventing greater collaboration because of how the system has been arranged, not intentionally ... we could extend the life of a lot of people with cancer,” Biden said.
As an example, Biden cited a case in which under the administration of former President Barack Obama, $30 million was awarded to improve electronic recordkeeping. “It got divided up five ways, into six different silos. You can’t share information, by design even,” he said.
As to why he chose South by Southwest to deliver this message, Biden said that he needs the collective help of the kinds of people who attend the conference.
“South by Southwest has brought together some of the most creative minds in the world,” Biden said. Even those who work in technology as entertainment can innovate in ways to fight cancer in unexpected ways, he said.
“That’s why we need your help. You’re the future. We can solve these problems. These are technological problems. These are not cancer problems. Some of the most innovative minds in the world are sitting in front of me,” Biden said.
The cancer moonshot initiative, Biden said, began when he had decided not to run for president in the 2016 election and was ready to announce it in the White House Rose Garden.
"I would have loved to have been the president who presided over the end of cancer as we know it,” he remembered telling Obama, which put into motion the work, spurred by the death from cancer of his son, Beau Biden.
Biden spoke of the end of his son’s life toward the end of the talk, speaking more quietly and emotionally as he described a clinical trial his son participated in and how he felt when Congress, led by political rival Mitch McConnell, named a chunk of cancer funding for Beau.
“The one thing I know maybe better than anybody living is the Congress,” Joe Biden said. “And guess what? Guess what? The only bipartisan thing left in America is the fight against cancer.”
By the end of the talk, Biden was eliciting tears from the crowd. Referencing John F. Kennedy, he ended the SXSW presentation by describing the desperation of those dying of cancer who want just one more month, or even a day. He concluded: “That’s the urgency of now. This moment. This instant.”
In addition to breaking down walls among disciplines, Biden said making better use of money taxpayers are already putting toward cancer research, better access to clinical trials and more widespread sharing of critical data are keys to the cancer battle.
“Your government that many of you don't like is the vehicle for how this gets funded,” he said.
Biden described a bright spot that has already began to spur change: cancer-sequencing data at the Genomic Data Commons has been accessed online more than 80 million times. Partnerships between research groups, nonprofits and tech companies, he said, will keep data flowing more freely. “It’s a big deal,” he said.
South by Southwest continues through Saturday, March 19.