Cancer Research, Grants, and the Topology of Funding

John Hawks reviews an article in the NY times, by Gina Kolata, on Grants for Cancer Research.  Here’s an excerpt from the original article:

Yet the fight against cancer is going slower than most had hoped, with only small changes in the death rate in the almost 40 years since it began.

One major impediment, scientists agree, is the grant system itself. It has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with the understanding that the focus will be on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer.

“These grants are not silly, but they are only likely to produce incremental progress,” said Dr. Robert C. Young, chancellor at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia and chairman of the Board of Scientific Advisors, an independent group that makes recommendations to the cancer institute.

The institute’s reviewers choose such projects because, with too little money to finance most proposals, they are timid about taking chances on ones that might not succeed.

Hawks sees a few risks inherent in the approach taken by Kolata’s article in it’s portrayal of the research granting process:

This kind of story runs a risk: if you applied for grants and didn’t get them, are you just whining? I mean, ninety percent of grant applications are not funded, so if you’re even average good, you’ve got to submit 10 before you have any expectation of return.

The other risk of the story is that readers will draw that conclusion that there are so many deserving grants that go unfunded, all we need to do is raise the funding level. This overlooks the very high costs of the current review system — flying all those people around for panels, handling the paperwork, paying the grant agencies’ bureaucracies, plus the support staff at universities and other institutions to collect the grant money — “indirect” costs of grants that cover administration now amount to nearly half of federal grant budgets. There’s no question that this money could be better allocated.

More interestingly to me, he uses the metaphor of a “research-space”, that is a topological landscape in R3, where there are hills and valleys representing scientific breakthroughs at the high points.

Think of cancer research as a search space, where research advances are moving toward some (perhaps several) peaks. Now, the question is what kind of change will bring you closer to a peak?

Well, it depends how close to the peak you already are. If you’re already close to a peak, a very large change can do nothing but take you further from it. An incremental change will be roughly halfway likely to take you up a small amount; halfway likely to take you down. So if you think you’re already very close to an acceptable cure rate for cancer, you should focus on the very small incremental improvements.

On the other hand, if you’re far from a peak, a large change is not unlikely to take you closer to the top, and it will certainly get you there a lot faster.

But worse, what if you’re climbing some low peak, where the outcome — even if you do everything entirely right — is poor? A small incremental change will never do any better than the short peak you’re on. But a large change has some chance of finding some other peak — a radical shift in treatment that would bring much better outcomes. The likelihood of that for any particular change may be very low. But your coverage of the search space would be vastly larger — making progress much faster.

In other words, if we don’t know where we are in the research space, our best bets are often large jumps, since the probability of already being close to the top of a peak is low.  But, of course, that could take us farther away from the peak if we ARE close to one.

Having a navigator and a map would be more than handy.  But, that is a large task all its own, that also would require funding!

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