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Grant system undermines innovation in cancer research

June 30, 2009

Citing the $105-billion spent by the U.S. National Cancer Institute since Richard Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, an author for the New York Times asks why the fight is going so slowly, with only small changes observed in the death rate? The answer, according to Gina Kolata, is the conservatism of the NCI grant review process (among other agencies’). She argues that potentially game-changing research is rarely funded, with funding targeted instead to small-scale incremental research, which basically serves as a “jobs program”, a way to keep labs going year after year.

It’s an interesting survey of the difficulties granting agencies face – how one can convince peer-review panels that out-of-the-ordinary research should be funded is a tough nut to crack. This article pokes fun at the lack of vision displayed by some of the currently funded research. But imagine the field day critics would have if the NIH started funding truly outside-the-box work.  As Dr. Raynard S. Kingston, acting Director of the NIH says:

We have a system that works over all pretty well, and is very good at ruling out bad things — we don’t fund bad research. But given that, we also recognize that the system probably provides disincentives to funding really transformative research.

Jim Till at the Cancer Stem Cell Consortium (CSCC) blog has some commentary on the article, and provides a bit of a Canadian perspective. Thanks to the CSCC blog for bringing the article to my attention.

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