How we measure our impact against cancer
We fund millions of pounds of cancer research every year. But how do we know we're making a difference? Dr Gwen Wathne, Impact Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research, is busy identifying the long-term outcomes of the research we fund. Here she tells us a bit more about the work she does, and why.
The meaning of impact
Impact can have different meanings for different disciplines and organisations, but at Worldwide Cancer Research we primarily want to know how the research we fund makes a difference to the meaning of cancer. For example, how does our research help advance our understanding of cancer? How does it contribute to improved technologies, tests and treatments? How does it ultimately benefit patients or society as a whole?
We do this because as a charity, we are accountable to our supporters. We receive all of our funding from supporters, and it’s really important that we can show how their money is working. This is why we monitor the progress of the projects we fund while they are active, and we also follow-up on the research once our funding has finished to see what has happened.
We use a combination of different methods to measure the impact of the research we fund, and we are trying new things all the time. We are currently testing a data-capture system called Researchfish, where scientists can log the outcomes of their research- such as papers, awards, and further funding onto one online system.
But much of my time is still spent looking back through old grants and getting in touch with scientists to ask them how their research has moved on. This is why I love my job, it's a bit like being a science detective- digging up all the great little nuggets of information which show that our research really is having an impact on cancer.
It takes time
Because we fund early-stage and translational cancer research, it can take years for the full effects of the research we fund to become apparent. And these ongoing effects might take various different forms- from gathering new knowledge about cell and cancer mechanisms, to developing new technologies and helping other scientists push their research forward, to finally bringing new tests and treatments to patients.
A large study published in 2014, Medical Research: What's it Worth?, tried to measure in a systematic way the value of charity- and government-funded cancer research in the UK. It found that every pound spent on cancer research brings in significant patient and economic returns. But it also found it takes on average 15 years for that initial research investment to reach patients.
I think this really highlights why the kind of early-stage research we do is so essential. It provides that tiny seed of new knowledge or discovery, which over time can grow and turn into to very meaningful research advances.
Our own impact
And my own findings back this up.
For example Professor Dario Alessi's research, which we helped to fund back in 2001, went on to contribute to recent renewed interest in testing the diabetes drug metformin as an anticancer drug. Metformin is now currently being tested in numerous cancer patient trials.
And 11 years of Worldwide Cancer Research funding helped Professor Stephen Bown show that photodynamic therapy is safe for use in some cancers.
Immunotherapy was named by Science as 'Breakthrough of the Year' in 2013, but it's taken many decades of research to get to this point. Worldwide Cancer Research has been supporting immunotherapy research for at least the last 15 years.
I think Professor Jamie Davies at the University of Edinburgh sums up beautifully why we need to keep looking at long-term research gains:
It is great that you are coming back to people after 10 years. When Worldwide Cancer Research asked for a report at the end of the grant, I could and did tell you about the immediate publishable results. But I could not have known, then, where it would have led. I suspect that deep impacts only show up after a decade or so.
But that's not to say that sometimes the impact of our funding can't come incredibly quickly. For example, Dr Gareth Evans was able to use findings from just the first year of his project to set up a clinical testing service for diagnosing spinal tumours.
Find out more about the difference we are making against cancer here.