After the detour last week related to the thyroid bump, and a busy, fun weekend with family events, things are settling down a little this week into a routine of work and ongoing chemo. And so I am in Washington DC today to participate in a regular duty that is at the core of biomedical research: grant reviewing. I want to tell you a little about the life of an academic researcher and the never-ending competition for grant support for their ideas and work, because this is what underline progress in fighting cancer.
Much like in the medical field, training for researchers takes a long time. For biomedical scientists, it looks like this: after earning your bachelor’s degree you go to graduate school for between 3 and 7 years, depending on where you earn your doctorate. Then, these days, it is not unusual to do one or two post-doctoral fellowships totaling another 3 to 7 years. During these years you have to make some significant contributions, and publish papers so that you can then out-compete probably somewhere in the range of 10 peers to get that faculty job: if you succeed you become an Assistant Professor.
With the faculty position comes a start-up package. These are funds given from the university or institute where you will establish your independent research program, and will pay the salaries of the personnel in your lab and the instruments and materials you need to perform your research. There is a good deal of variability in these, but they are usually calibrated to get you going and give you enough to have a small lab (3 to 5 people perhaps) for about 3 to 5 years. The expectation is that sooner, rather than later, that you get your own funds.
There are different kinds of funds: everything from small niche foundations, the large foundations such as the American Cancer Society or Komen for the Cure all the way to the major federal sources, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Defense. These grants can be a few thousand dollars given once to over a million, over 5 years. The gold standard is the individual investigator research grants from the NIH, called the RO1, and it typically brings around $250,000 a year into the lab, and lasts 5 years. That’s enough to support perhaps 2 or 3 people in the lab, say a student, a post-doctoral fellow or a technician, and provide funds for the materials needed to do the work.
Although some of the grant may go to support the salary of the professor, it is important to realize that this is not additional salary, but replaces funds that otherwise would have come from the institution. A highly successful researcher may be bringing in essentially all their own salary, costing the university or institute little. Getting a grant does not directly benefit the faculty member financially, and its more a requirement of keeping your job. Of course getting grants is also important for eventual promotion (from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Professor) and that is associated with an increase in salary.
At the moment the NIH, and particularly the National Cancer Institute (NCI) where most cancer grants go to compete for funds, is only supporting around one grant in five or less. (The “pay line” which is how many grants in any competition get funded is lower, about 10%, but overall success is more complicated. If you are interested in the details, this is the best explanation I have seen: http://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2011/02/15/paylines-percentiles-success-rates/). Submitting a grant is no trivial matter. You need a lot of data showing that you can do the work, and that what you are proposing to do is important and novel. In fact the start-package I mentioned above is to get you to the point where you have enough under your belt to put in a competitive grant. It can take a couple of years to get those data and then several months to write the grant.
Then the grant gets peer reviewed. What that means is that it is read by at least 3 peers, usually more senior scientists from other institutions, who score the applications, write critiques justifying their scores and then come together to discuss their evaluations. At these committee meetings differences in opinion are explored to make sure that the overall evaluation is as thorough and just as they can be. The reviewers who have looked at the grant in depth lead the discussion and the rest of the committee listens, can join in and then everyone scores the application. These scores are intended to reflect scientific merit, and are used to rank the applications for funding priority.
After that, the funding agency makes the final decision, using the scientific merit but also considering balancing their portfolio of work so that science remains broad and vibrant and not everyone is chasing the latest trend (yes, we have trends in research, like everywhere else). You can search and see all the work funded by NIH at this website: http://report.nih.gov/. A search for “breast cancer” in the grants abstracts yields over 2,200 projects. The same search for “male breast cancer” yields only 5, none of which is a primary biological analysis.
Scientists who fail to get grants have a very hard time getting promoted, or achieving tenure. Scientists who lose their grant funding can also be in real jeopardy of losing their positions. It is a never-ending, competition for grant funds. This keeps science moving forward, and encourages even more senior scientists to continually reinvent themselves and stay current with the extraordinarily rapidly developing scientific world. It requires enormous dedication, hard work, tenacity and creativity to keep up.
I want everyone to appreciate that the discoveries that underpin progress in fighting cancer come from scientists who are engaged in a career-long competition to keep their research funded, a far cry from the hackneyed view of the idle academic whiling away the hours in their ivory tower. You have to continuously convince your peers that your work is relevant, high quality and impactful. I admire my colleagues who do this, and am grateful to them.
Cancer is one of the prime challenges of our time. Prevention and research are the only answers.