Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Manhattan Project to Replace the Moon Shot

by Greg Simon, President, FasterCures

Next summer I have my fortieth high school reunion. (Ouch!) I haven’t decided whether I’ll go. To be honest, I’m not sure I want to be trapped for a few days talking about what happened forty years ago. I always cringe when I hear "Glory Days," the Springsteen song about a guy stuck reliving his high school achievements the rest of his life. I’ve had a lot of good fortune in my life since high school and there’s a lot to talk about; the problem is I don’t feel comfortable talking about it around people who only want to talk about the "glory days."

Well, I hate to say it, but America is stuck at its own fortieth reunion, talking about past glory days – I’m talking about landing a man on the moon forty years ago, my senior year in high school.

How often have you heard in the past election campaign, or at meeting after meeting on healthcare, education, technology innovation, whatever, that what this country needs is another moonshot, a commitment to do something hard and inspirational? And for a special bonus, don’t forget to mention the Manhattan Project when you really want to inspire people to do something hard.

Right. What we need to do to cure cancer or fix our broken schools is to lock a group of Hungarian, German, and Russian immigrants in a gym under a football field, put them under the dictatorial command of a General and not let them out until they develop something that can end life as we know it.

Is this the best we can do? Have we accomplished nothing since the Bomb and the Apollo projects? Have we been wandering in a desert of underachievement for the last forty years, or are we just metaphor-deprived?

Let me take a different tack. Have you ever noticed that nearly all the metaphors we use in daily life originated in 18th century sailing terms?
  • "We stayed ‘til the bitter end." (The end of the anchor cable attached to the "bit.")
  • "He was three sheets to the wind." (Sheets are the ropes that haul the sails, three sheets flying mean you are out of control.)
  • "I gave him quite a start." (To "start" someone on a ship is to strike them with a whip, or worse to get them moving and working.)
  • "He has lost his bearings."
  • "The campaign fired back with a full broadside." (I’ve long advocated for the America’s Cup to require cannon battles during the race. Anyone can learn to sail, but can you sail and fire a broadside at the same time?)
None of these terms retain their original meaning, they are now shorthand for situations or conditions.
When I worked for Vice President Gore, he gave a commencement speech at MIT devoted exclusively to the poverty of modern metaphors to represent our lives. (We did two all-nighters on that speech, but that’s a different story.) His point is just as true today; for all of our innovation in science and technology that has transformed our daily lives, we have not found a way to replace the metaphors we inherited from our grandparents’ grandparents. (Somehow, "My hard drive crashed" still doesn’t trump "It took the wind out of my sails.")
So, how do we …uh…chart a different course? Are we doomed to be linguistically lost at sea, rudderless and unmasted by a lack of imagination? Or can we damn the torpedoes of inertia and go full steam ahead with a wind of new metaphors at our back, flowing with a creative current of concepts to a bright shining shore? Whew.

First, let’s leave high school. We can no longer ride the moonshot to glory, and those scientists we need for another Manhattan Project can’t get work visas. Where can we look for inspiration? Let’s leave the world of rockets and bombs and look at life.

It’s 2008 and so far, we have defined life in the 21st Century in terms of having everything instantaneously and simultaneously. We want speed (10 seconds to open an attachment?!). We multitask (ITunes, YouTube, instant messaging, Facebook updates, all while watching CNN’s split screens). We live in communities connected by social networks (are the 2,489 friends really your friends?).

And yet, when speed matters most and its consequences are measured in terms of lives saved, we’ve gotten complacent. It takes 15 years to develop new medical treatments. If living longer and having a better quality of life are not enough to spur us into making this a national priority, where can we look for inspiration? What will it take for us to focus on curing diseases?

We need a moonshot equivalent in the life sciences. Until then, any metaphors we should consider?

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