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The Black Hole

New Canadian Cancer Society grant programs (draft released)


The Canadian Cancer Society is the largest charitable funder of cancer research in Canada and they have undertaken a rather substantial redesign of their funding programs.  Late last week, I received a draft version of the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute’s (CCSRI) new IMPACT and INNOVATION grants programs.  In it, the CCSRI details the specific move away from their standard research grants program into this next generation of targeted research priorities.

1.  IMPACT grants are being developed to support large, well-developed programs in cancer research that have the potential to make a significant impact on the burden of disease in patients and populations.

The (paraphrased) goal of the IMPACT grants is to help scientists adopt innovations that have the potential for practical application to the reduction of cancer incidence and mortality or to improved quality of life.  They are “not intended to support incremental scientific advances but to promote major advancement in research programs”
Key program details

  • up to $250,000/year
  • 5 year maximum
  • 14 new grants/year
  • renewable

Selected key criteria (visit the CCSRI for the complete list)

  • tangible benefit to patients
  • strong scientific merit
  • original and innovative
  • level of collaboration
  • will it yield discoveries that will shape a field of research or challenge previously accepted ideas?

2.  INNOVATION grants are being developed by CCSRI to support innovative, creative problem solving in cancer research. As competition for grant funding increases, peer review panels become more conservative and risk averse, emphasizing feasibility more than innovation.

The (paraphrased) goal of the INNOVATION grants is to support unconventional or blue sky ideas.  They are the high risk, high reward arm of the new funding strategy.
Key program details

  • up to $100,000/year
  • 2 year maximum
  • 32 new grants/year
  • 3 year extension is possible with a $200,000 maximum
  • short application – 5 pages
  • 8-10 week peer review

Selected key criteria (visit the CCSRI for the complete list)

  • strong scientific merit
  • original and innovative
  • does the project challenge existing models, assumptions, or practices?
  • will it change the way we think about cancer?

In the last few days, I’ve gone about soliciting some opinions from junior scientists to compile their take on this redesign.  While this is certainly nowhere near a representative sample size, I did feel it was worth identifying some of the pros and cons discussed and open the floor on here for others to comment.  We will compile this article and any responses that we receive on here and forward them directly to the CCSRI for consideration in the final stages of their program development.

The positives
The push for research on how to reduce cancer incidence (preventative medicine)
Insert applause here.  This is exactly what the CCSRI should be investing in and the balance of funding between it and basic biomedical research is not unreasonable.  How many of us have had a loved with cancer (or any disease for that matter) that we can at least partially attribute to life choices (e.g.: smoking) or environmental consequences (e.g.: unprotected sunbathing)?  We still do not have a firm grasp on the panoply of toxins / mutagens that increase our risk for cancers and research into what those are and how to minimize our exposure seems quite appropriate.  Full details of the type of research the CCSRI funds and plans to fund more are available here.

If the grant is going to be relatively small ($100,000) and the application relatively short (5 pages), then turning the decision around in 8-10 weeks seems like a brilliant idea.  This will greatly facilitate creative solutions in cancer research allowing researchers to pursue exciting new avenues of research in a relatively short period of time.  One of the major criticisms of young scientists is the length of time it takes to have fellowship applications reviewed (often >6 months) and this type of speed is a very welcome departure.

Blue sky thinking
One of the most impressionable moments I’ve had in Cambridge so far was listening to one of the developers of the next generation sequencing platform Solexa where he cited the flexibility to pursue an open research program as central to making this discovery.  This was quickly followed by a lamentation that many granting panels today would quickly bin his mid 1990s grant application, a trend he seems as extremely damaging to the research culture in the UK.  The CCSRI, like a few other programs in Canada these days ((notably the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s New Opportunities Fund which has morphed into the Leading Edge Fund)), seems to be making a very good choice by supporting this type of research in their INNOVATION grants and was met with much enthusiasm by those I asked.

Meeting the goals of the CCS
Doing what you say you will with the monies that are donated is the lynchpin to a credible and successful charity.  The CCSRI, in its 2010-2015 Nationwide strategic plan continually emphasizes the reduction of cancer incidence, the reduction of cancer mortality, and the improvement of patient’s quality of life as main themes.  It raises money based on this and is right to emphasize this in its research portfolio which has three “ends”:  1) risk reduction/prevention 2) basic biomedical and translational research and 3) quality of life research.  The increase in support in End 1 (12% up to 18-20% of total funding) under its new Prevention Initiative and the overall retained emphasis (72-75% vs. 80%) on End 2 reflect the goals of the CCS well couched in the practical reality of basic biomedical and translational research being the major driver (and expenditure) of improved cancer outcomes.

The negatives
How do the CCSRI panels prospectively identify non-incremental advances in basic science?
The IMPACT grants which are the new long-term grant option specifically state that they will not support incremental scientific advances, but instead will simply promote major advancement in research programs.  Wouldn’t everyone just love to fund such things.  It would be the envy of all granting agencies if the CCSRI could somehow divine which projects are more likely than others to promote major research advancements.  The vast majority of basic science “breakthroughs” are based on incremental research and are derived from the work of numerous other groups – it is virtually impossible to imagine investigators or reviewers being able to predict with any sort of confidence that this timing and fortuitousness will occur over the time course of a particular IMPACT grant.  If the CCSRI is not careful they will be awarding IMPACT grants to the scientists with the best whitewashing pitch.

Promises based on anticipated monies
In the accompanying FAQ to these changes, it is stated that the CCS, like many charities, has been negatively affected by the global recession.  Fair enough.  What isn’t fair, is to address concerns of reduced budget with a we-just-plan-to-raise-more-money waffle… The most concerning portion of the strategy is the premise that this new, exciting brand of cancer research will somehow be better than previous efforts and will produce more results faster.  This is exactly the type of rhetoric that builds false hope amongst donors and we’ve already over-hyped the promise to “eradicate cancer”.  Researching the unknown properties of the very complicated set of diseases collectively termed cancers is an arduous process and it does require vast sums of money – this set of facts should be enough and re-branding a research program will not change this.

Is there room for funding basic science without a direct link to an “innovation”?
The big sticking point for many of the junior scientists that I spoke with on these new programs was what they replace and whether this would be a prudent shift of resources.  It seems from the language in the documents that the while CCSRI is maintaining its investment in basic biomedical research, it is shifting toward basic biomedical research that is either highly experimental/risky (INNOVATION) or will utilise new technologies that support non-incremental scientific advances (IMPACT).  The former is quite short (though to be fair, is potentially renewable) and the latter seems like an expedition into the global assessment of everything (e.g.: genomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, etc) just because it’s a new technology.  There appears to be little room for good science in labs with good expertise to get a reliable source of grant money from the CCSRI to do good work – something that was previously available under the research grants portfolio.
Overall, it seems that young scientists have strong support for the INNOVATION program, but are quite tentative about the practicalities and direction of the IMPACT programs.  This is especially pertinent as these monies are to come at the expense of previous program grants from the CCS that could be used to pursue basic research that would increase our understanding of cancer biology.   It may not be sexy and it may not sell like a new “research portfolio”, but basic science is the slow and steady engine that drives the advances in cancer biology and if we’re too prescriptive about what to study, we risk missing the correct path to “major advancement in research programs”

Of course – this will always be an open forum for discussion and I strongly encourage our readers to drop off their opinions below or write directly to the CCSRI team here.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Marianne Stanford / May 5, 2011 at 15:29

    I have just re-read this blog, after I heard someone from CCSRI describe these grants yesterday at a talk. I get the idea that this is still evolving somewhat, but one of the things that stuck with me is how it was described that the IMPACT and INNOVATION grants may fit around more typical operating grants, such as CIHR. What I took away from it was that the INNOVATION grants were meant to provide ‘project-driven’ grants with the small amount of funding to generate the data required to support a larger operating grants, for both newer investigators as well as ‘seasoned’ investigators who do not have the current funding to follow a new idea. The IMPACT grants are larger and more substantial to provide ‘program’ level funding of bigger projects and will likely be predominated by established researchers looking to make those huge discoveries. I guess that could be one reason that the INNOVATION grants tend to appeal to junior investigators, as they may be more likely to qualify, where the chances of your first/first renewal grant being one of these IMPACT grants is actually unlikely.