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Paying for the discoveries that defeat cancer

Posted on 29 August, 2013 by Harry Dayantis

Vital research isn't free; the money has to come from somewhere

Vital research isn't free; the money has to come from somewhere

‘Money, it’s a crime. Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.’ So said Roger Waters in 1972, on the Pink Floyd hit single Money. In today’s age of austerity, this competitive sentiment echoes throughout the research community. With research budgets being frozen or cut, researchers find themselves competing fiercely for every slice of an ever-shrinking pie. Applying for funding is a fundamental part of any researcher’s work. It doesn’t matter how important or life-saving you think your work is; if you can’t convince somebody to pay for it, you can’t do it.

Dr Sebastian Guettler joined The Institute of Cancer Research, London, last October to lead the Structural Biology of Cell Signalling team. Yet even before he started work, he began applying for his Cancer Research UK  funding back in July 2012 and submitted the full application in November. He told me:

“I was working flat-out on my funding proposal from September right through November, so my first month in the office here was focused on that. I was super excited when they called me for interview in April, and was preparing for that from the start of the year. My colleagues here gave me great advice at every stage of the application process.”

The work that goes into applying for funding is colossal, and it’s a side of science that we don’t often see. As Dr Guettler explained to me, the pressure is high but the reward is satisfying:

“It’s incredibly exciting to have the opportunity at your fingertips; once you reach the interview stage, you know you’re close, but your success all depends on a half-hour meeting with about a dozen people. You have to demonstrate that your project is worthwhile, has real clinical potential and crucially that your team are actually capable of doing the work! Preliminary results are perfect for this.”

Yet isn’t this a Catch-22 – how do you pay for preliminary experiments if you need the results before you can get any funding?

“The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) has a fantastic support structure with a budget for equipment, research consumables and staff when you get started,” explains Dr Guettler. “This, together with the freedom granted by my previous project advisors to explore some new ideas before coming here, enabled me to get the preliminary results I needed for the Cancer Research UK grant. I was absolutely delighted when I was awarded the grant, and it showed that the months of work I’d put into it with support from ICR resources and colleagues had paid off.”

With a clear passion for his work, I’m sure Dr Sebastian Guettler will have many more successes in his time with us at the ICR. However, there are other issues that may arise as he progresses through his career. Dr Louis Chesler, Reader in Paediatric Solid Tumour Biology and Therapeutics at the ICR, has several years’ experience of the process, having transitioned from the USA. He told me about some of the difficulties facing early-career researchers today in the UK:

“There are several additional funding options available for tenured investigators once an initial research programme is established, but these days it is more challenging to think about how to start up a laboratory in the early career phase, because some funding organisations (such as Cancer Research UK and the Wellcome Trust) have eliminated the project grant scheme. These are hopefully being replaced with alternatives.

“It can also be challenging to transition from project to programme grant funding around the time of a tenure decision, and a lot of thought has to go into how to structure this transition well in advance so that it doesn’t become an issue. Importantly at the ICR, fundraising can help with this, and make planning more robust by suggesting alternative funding sources and complementary approaches that smooth this transition. This has been very useful to me in my time at ICR.”

There are many challenges facing researchers today, so the ICR Academic Services and Fundraising teams do all they can to put our researchers in a strong position to get funding. This is all in pursuit of our ultimate goal: making the discoveries that defeat cancer.
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