Senator Bill Frist's Biological "Manhattan Project"

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has joined the call for a major program to advance scientific and technical capabilities in biology.

In remarks at Harvard Medical School on 1 June, 2005, he called for a new Manhattan Project(PDF).  This isn't the best analogy to make, given the connection to secret weapons programs, but the right sentiment is there nonetheless.  I strongly prefer the Apollo Program as an analogy, particularly if you re-frame the cold war competition angle as a race against pandemics and bioterrorism.

UPDATE (5 June 05): Here is what I wrote in 2003 about the Manhattan and Apollo Project as analogies for a big biological program;

Previous governmental efforts to rapidly develop technology, such as the Manhattan and Apollo Projects, were predominantly closed, arguably with good reason at the time. But we live in a different era and should consider an open effort that takes advantage of preexisting research and development networks. This strategy may result in more robust, sustainable, distributed security and economic benefits.  Note also that though both were closed and centrally coordinated, the Manhattan and Apollo Projects were very different in structure. The Apollo Project took place in the public eye, with failures plainly writ in smoke and debris in the sky. The Manhattan Project, on the other hand, took place behind barbed wire and was so secret that very few people within the US government and military knew of its existence. This is not the ideal model for research that is explicitly aimed at understanding how to modify biological systems. Above all else, let us insist that this work happens in the light, subject to the scrutiny of all who choose to examine it.

Anyway, Frist's comments constitute, by my reading, a major domestic and foreign policy speech.  A speech to frame a political career, you might say.

A few paragraphs:

"I propose an unprecedented effort – a “Manhattan Project for the 21st Century” – not with the goal of creating a destructive new weapon, but to defend against destruction wreaked by infectious disease and biological weapons.  I speak of substantial increases in support for fundamental research, medical education, emergency capacity and public health infrastructure; I speak of an unleashing of the private sector and unprecedented collaboration between
government and industry and academia; I speak of the creation of secure stores of treatments and vaccines and vast networks of distribution; I speak of action, without excuses, without exceptions; with the goal of protecting every American and the capability to help protect the people of the world.

I call for the creation of the ability to detect, identify, and model any emerging or newly emerging infection, present or future, natural or otherwise; for the ability to engineer the immunization and cure, and to manufacture, distribute, and administer what we need to get it done and to get it done in time. For some years to come, this should be a chief work of the nation, for the good reason that failing to make it so could risk the life of the nation and other
nations the world over.

This is a bold vision.  But it is the kind of thing that, once accomplished, is done. And it is the kind of thing that calls out to be done, and that, if not done, will indict us forever in the eyes of history. In diverting a portion of our resources to protect nothing less than our lives, the lives of our children, and the life of our civilization, many benefits other than survival would follow in train, not least the satisfaction of having done right.  If the process of scientific
discovery proceeds as usually it does, we will come to understand diseases that we do not now understand and find the cures for diseases that we cannot now cure. And, as always, disciplined and decisive action in facing an emergency can, even in the short run, compensate for its costs – by adding to the economy both a potent principle of organization and a stimulus like war but war’s opposite in effect.  This would power the productive life of the country into new fields, helping transform the information age with unexpected rapidity into the biotechnical age that is to come.  All this, if the nation can be properly inspired in its own defense and protection, perhaps just in time.

We have built great cities, dams, and aqueducts. We have built the interstate highway system, bridges, canals, fleets, armies, a world of structures. We have decided upon going to the moon and then done so in a few short years. Can we not, then, build this thing, and take these steps, to protect our lives and the lives of our children, to evade mass death and suffering, that would strike at all classes, all races, all ages? We must open our eyes to face the single greatest threat to our safety and security today, but also to seize our single greatest opportunity.
I am aware of the difficulties. But the United States is as blessed today as it has been since its beginnings. We are the wealthiest, freest, and most scientifically advanced of all societies, the first republican democracy, the first modern state. And although we have suffered criticism of late, we have been willing since our Founding and are willing still to pursue certain ideals. Though not infrequently condemned from the precincts of cynicism, America has mostly left cynics in its wake, sometimes after saving them from floods that they themselves have unleashed."

I can't say I agree with the notion that the vision, "once accomplished, is done."  We might be successful in creating an infrastructure that provides a response capability for both natural and artificial threats, but the work to maintain vigilance and update the technology will never be done.  Nonetheless, we need to get moving.  Right now.