So it’s been a while since my last post, but there is a very good reason for that. I’ve been working. Yes! Actual, real work! Like grown ups do! And the work I have been doing, is writing. Lots and lots of writing. Which is fine, of course. And a thoroughly noble pursuit. But it did have the knock-on effect of making me so fed up of typing that I couldn’t face doing some more in my spare time and this put me off posting for a bit.
But while it may have taken me away from the Very Important Task of writing a semi-regular, semi-humorous science-based blog, I suppose there is a silver lining. It has given me an idea for This Very Post Wot You Are Readin’! Woo-hoo!
Because it occurred to me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to describe Cancer – how it begins, how it develops, how it can be treated, etc. – but I haven’t spoken much about what it is that us Cancer Researchers actually do.
Now, the obvious answer would be, “They do experiments to find out more about cancer”. And that would be true. But, as always in life, there’s a bit more to it than that. After all:
1) Which experiments should we do?
2) What is it we are looking for?
And, more pertinently:
3) How do we pay for the work?
4) Where does the money come from?
To answer the first two questions, it is important to realise that we are not all looking for the same things. I’ve spoken before about the complexity of cancer. How it is not a single disease, but a huge collection of different diseases that can affect a wide variety of different organs. And this is also reflected in the way that Research is organised. In general, different research teams will be working on a different, specific project. Maybe it’s a new drug, maybe a specific molecular mechanism inside cancer cells, maybe a new technology. And, in each team, the individual members will be looking at one specific, associated thing.
So, the team as a whole may be looking at a signalling pathway that is associated with cancer, say one that is associated with metastatic spread (ie. where secondary tumours form, as I discussed back in One Of The Crowd). So, in this type of signalling pathway, activation by, say, a Go! Signal (see No Bootees) makes a molecular factor bind to a second, thus activating it to go and bind to a third factor, which then interacts with a fourth…. etc, etc. And the overall effect of all of these interactions is that the tumour cells which have this pathway activated are more likely to detach from the tumour and float off through the bloodstream.
Now, that is what the pathway does, and that is what the Research team are investigating. But the whole team won’t be looking at the whole pathway. One researcher might be looking at the first factor, another at the second, etc. Other members of the team may be looking into how the pathway is activated, yet others into related issues, such as other factors the pathway may affect, or if it is regulated differently in different types of cancer. But the upshot is that each, individual researcher will be employed to work on a specific project with a specific aim.
But now for the final two questions. The biggies: MONEY.
Researchers work on specific projects. And those projects need to be funded, to cover both salary costs and reagents, plasticware, bottles, equipment, etc. So, if we go back to our group which is working on the signalling pathway, then here is how it works. The group leader comes up with an idea about something to do with the pathway, eg. that exposure to a certain stimulus activates the pathway and drives the cells to become cancerous. In order to investigate this hypothesis, the group leader will need funds. So, he/she does a search to see what opportunities for funding are available.
These will be from either large or small cancer charities (Cancer Research UK being the biggest), or from government funding councils such as the MRC (Medical Research Council). Different funders will have their own guidelines and will fund different types of work. Some provide long-term funds for multiple researchers working on linked projects, other may only fund studentships, or short-term pilot studies, to try and generate experimental evidence that the initial hypothesis is worth further investigation.
So, it is important for the group leader to work out exactly what work they want to do, what type of person they want to employ and how long for. And, obviously all of these factors will influence which funding body they will apply to. So, having looked through the options and identified the funder, the group leader will then have to apply for funding. This involves writing a proposal, setting out the background to why they want to do the work and why it is important to answer this particular question. Next they will have to write an Impact statement, in order to explain how you will let the wider world know about your findings and what the potential benefits will be (either to the understanding of cancer and/or to the treatment of patients). This is an important part of it – the more impact you can make with your work, the better.
They will then have to work out how much it will cost overall and break down the total figure in terms of salary, consumables (reagents, plasticware), equipment etc. in order to justify what they have asked for. This bit can be a total nightmare. Scientists aren’t accountants or business people, so often we need to get the advice of our Institution’s finance department who, god love ‘em, may as well speak Klingon for all the sense they make at times.
But, having done all of that – written the research proposal to justify the work, written the Impact statement to justify the importance to the wider world, written the financial breakdown to justify the costs involved – the group leader then submits it the funding body, and waits. And waits…..Months go by…..
The reason it takes so long is, the funders don’t just give money to anybody, for anything. When they receive a proposal, they will send it to other scientists to review (the “Peer Review” process). These other scientists will look over the proposal and decide if the work is valid, feasible and if the amounts asked for are justified. If all of the Reviewers agree it is good enough then maybe – MAYBE – the funders will decide to award a Grant to the group leader to fund the work. The group leader can then employ someone to work on that specific project.
…..So! That is how scientific funding works – and that is what I’ve been up to for the last few weeks. Fingers crossed…..
AG McCluskey (2015). Money, Money, Money… Zongo’s Cancer Diaries