OUSTON — Vice President Joe Biden says he plans to dedicate his career after politics to cancer research — and to do so for “as long as I’m alive” — but ruled out serving in Hillary Clinton’s administration should she win the White House this fall.
In a wide-ranging interview with STAT, Biden said he would want to work closely with a Clinton administration to build on the “cancer moonshot” he launched earlier this year and to help “coordinate” the initiative. But he dismissed the possibility that Clinton’s recent appeal for him to continue working on the effort meant he would serve in government.
“I’m not going to stay on in the administration,” Biden said in a 25-minute interview here at Rice University, where he delivered a speech on Friday. “What Hillary talked about is, as I understood it, me being able to have the same authority over elements of her administration from the outside that I have now from the inside, to be able to coordinate those efforts.”
Biden said he is still exploring ways in which he might help accelerate cancer research once he and President Obama leave office. His commitment is borne out of personal loss: His son Beau died of brain cancer last year.
He said he has discussed his next steps with scientists, foundations, and other institutions, and he recalled a recent conversation with “a billionaire philanthropist” — whom his aides declined to identify — about how he might work with “existing philanthropic efforts relating to cancer.”
Previously, Biden has spoken with Napster founder Sean Parker and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others, about the moonshot.
“I’m going to stay involved in this effort as long as I’m alive,” Biden said. “So I’m going to stay engaged. Exactly how, I don’t know yet.”
Should Donald Trump win the White House, Biden said he hoped it wouldn’t spell the end of his initiative. He pointed to Republican support in Congress as reason to be optimistic.
“I would hope [Trump] would bring, attract, out of just pure patriotic necessity, some very good minds to let him know that there is a lot of money we’re spending in the federal government, billions of dollars on medical research,” Biden said, “and there is a consensus.”
He contrasted supportive Republicans with the archconservative Freedom Caucus, which is frequently skeptical of federal spending. He said he hoped Trump would not fall in the latter camp.
“I don’t think he’s that crazy,” Biden said. “We can afford all this.”
The Obama administration has requested $755 million to fund the cancer research initiative in the next fiscal year — with significant money going to the National Institutes of Health and other US agencies. It has set a goal of achieving 10 years’ worth of progress in cancer research over the next five years.
“I’m going to stay involved in this effort as long as I’m alive. So I’m going to stay engaged. Exactly how, I don’t know yet.”
Vice President Joe Biden
Biden said he is hopeful that the GOP-controlled Congress will approve additional funding for the moonshot this year.
The vice president has convened numerous high-level meetings among cancer experts and sought to encourage collaboration among researchers. The initiative has started to produce specific policy changes, such as new rules for clinical trials announced last week.
But Biden’s efforts have not been immune to both skepticism and outright criticism.
In January, the editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, along with a deputy, published an editorial labeling as “parasites” scientists who try to use one another’s research data to advance their own work. The editorial — which did not mention Biden directly, but followed his plea for data sharing as part of the moonshot — provoked a sharp backlash.
Four days later, editor in chief Jeffrey Drazen issued a letter clarifying his position and saying that researchers who use others’ data “can substantially improve human health.”
“He got the living crap kicked out of him. I didn’t say a word. I never met the guy,” Biden said. “It was all some mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m hardly sorry.”
In the interview, Biden also responded to concerns that he and his aides initially overlooked the importance of prevention efforts in the battle against cancer.
While public health crusades, like anti-smoking and anti-obesity campaigns, are important to preventing cancer, he said, his initiative was focused on improving research to better understand genetic factors that predispose people to the disease — so they can seek treatment earlier.
“There are still going to be people … who are going to get cancer,” he said, “that have nothing to do with the fact that they’ve ever smoked or been exposed to smoking, that have nothing to do with the environmental impacts.”
Asked whether he has seen the “moonshot” change the culture of medical science, Biden said researchers have agreed to collaborate in ways he did not expect. But he described in frank terms the problem he was trying to solve — the “cancer politics” that he often references in his speeches.
“An awful lot of the guys and women I met sort of walk by the mirror and go: ‘Nobel Prize,’” Biden said. “You don’t usually win the Nobel Prize in their minds by sharing.”
Major research institutions and drug companies have committed to sharing some of their work as part of the moonshot. As he has previously, Biden credited that progress not to his own ability to accelerate research — “there’s nothing indispensible about me,” he said — but to an ability to “gather people up and … help break down barriers.”
“I’m not saying all of a sudden there’s this selflessness that’s occurred,” Biden told STAT. “But the medical culture I think was a little embarrassed, at least in my view, because I don’t think they realized how different their culture was than other sciences.”
“There’s a lot less pushback now on me,” he said. “Maybe it’s because they think I’m going to go away. Maybe they think this is just a phase of the moon. I don’t know. But I don’t think so. I’ve just got a feeling.”