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27 new cancer research projects awarded – how do we decide?

Hot off the press from our latest grant round we’re happy to announce that we’ve given another 27 brand new cancer research projects the go ahead.

But we receive hundreds of applications from scientists every year, and we just don’t have the funds to say yes to them all. Here we talk to the current head of our Scientific Advisory Committee Professor Harry Vrieling, and ask him just how the committee decides what to fund.

A huge remit

Representing a combined research investment of almost £5 million, our latest projects - outlined in the infographic above – show just how wide our remit is.

Spanning three continents, and targeting a range of cancers from breast, prostate, and bowel cancer to blood cancers, brain tumours and rarer cancers, each new project is just as deserving. Add to this the huge range of new and exciting ideas, from developing cutting-edge treatments like immunotherapies and cancer vaccines to getting right to the heart of how and why cancer develops; it’s not hard to see why our scientific committee have their work cut out.

Put bluntly, some very hard decisions are called for.

And it's Professor Vrieling’s job to preside over the culmination of those hard decisions. As well as running his own cancer research lab at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, part of his voluntary role with Worldwide Cancer Research is to chair our twice-yearly grant round meetings.

Here he tells us how those winning projects are chosen.

The charity gets over 700 applications for research funding every year – how are they whittled down to fewer than 50?

There’s a huge process of scientific review that takes about 6 months. First each application is analysed by the scientific committee to slice off the top three hundred, then those are also scrutinised by hundreds of other cancer research experts across the world.

Finally the scientific committee meets for an intense day-long debate to decide which ones will be funded. For an application to have any chance of getting funding, all the reviewers in that process need to agree the research idea is excellent.

What is the scientific committee looking for in a research idea?

We have a written list of criteria to score grants on, but I would say it mostly comes down to ideas that surprise and excite. Research that wants to answer important questions about cancer, or that takes a totally new angle. Ideas that really get us thinking. Those are the applications we fight hard for when it comes to handing out money.

But what about the hundreds of unfunded applications? Does that mean they are all rubbish?

Far from it. When the charity can only afford to fund 1 in 17 applications, the reality is that many great ideas have to be thrown out.

What happens to the good ideas Worldwide Cancer Research can’t afford to fund? Surely they won’t be lost to cancer research?

It’s difficult to know. We always hope they find funding elsewhere, for example from national agencies. But science funding has been hit hard by the recession so there isn’t a lot of money around. And other research grant bodies don’t all work like Worldwide Cancer Research – they won’t necessarily take chances on ambitious, risky science, or take such a broad view of cancer.

I would guess that some of those ideas are lost, for a simple lack of money. We will never know where they could have led.

It sounds like being on the scientific committee involves a lot of hard decisions…

It does. Tough decisions and many hours of work, which we mostly do in our spare time and all on a completely voluntary basis.

…are there good bits too?

Certainly! There’s great camaraderie on the committee, so while the meetings are hard work they are also good fun. But most of all, we know we are enabling brilliant cancer research to happen all over the world. Science that in time could change the way we view cancer. And that, of course, is hugely rewarding.

Find out more

We are a member of the Association of Medical Research Charities and this means we use a gold-standard expert peer-review system to award new grants twice a year. Find out what this means here.

See who else is currently on our Scientific Advisory Committee here.

Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

2 responses to “27 new cancer research projects awarded – how do we decide?”

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