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Cancer Research: The politics of getting grants

It's a dreaded disease that has afflicted humans for centuries. In recent decades, scientists around the world have been tirelessly searching for a cancer cure. Canadians are no exception. Amid constant fights for funding, concerns about "brain drain" and controversies over alternative therapies, Canada has made some vital breakthroughs in cancer research — from the invention of the "cobalt bomb" in the 1950s to the more recent innovations of cancer research icon Tak Mak.

Before cancer scientists can fight the disease, they have to fight for funds. This 1975 excerpt from Ideas looks at the struggles involved with getting grants. First, a representative of the National Cancer Institute of Canada describes the practical "how-tos" of the grant system. Then several scientists comment on the politics of it all. It's more about the prestige of your institution than anything else, believes Dr. Robert Yaes - and there can be a bit of "back-scratching" in the process.

The grant process can get extremely competitive. This often leads to researchers "playing up" the significance of their findings, according to science journalist Daniel Greenburg. This cutthroat environment could potentially lead to "outright dishonesty," he says. 
. Formed in 1947, the National Cancer Institute of Canada (NCIC) is one of Canada's main cancer research funding agencies. The NCIC itself is funded by the Canadian Cancer Society (75 per cent) and the Terry Fox Foundation (25 per cent), both of which rely heavily on fundraising. The federal government also frequently contributes money to the NCIC and other Canadian granting bodies. In 2004, the NCIC gave out $65 million in grants to fund cancer research in the country.

. According to the NCIC website, grant applications are judged based on the following categories:
- scientific merit
- feasibility
- cancer relevance
- potential impact of the project
- credentials and track record of the applicant

. Other organizations that fund cancer research in Canada include the Montreal-based Cancer Research Society Inc., the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance.
. Since the 1970s, critics have complained about the political nature of cancer research funding. Many of the same types of criticisms heard in this clip are still being made today.

. In the 1995 book Cancer Wars: How Politics Shaped What We Know and Don't Know About Cancer, writer Robert N. Proctor commented on how cancer prevention (which he saw as extremely important) tends to get ignored in the funding game. "The sad truth is that cancer prevention is low prestige. Prevention is impoverished in an age of heroic medicine, where the reward structure is heavily biased in favour of .high-tech interventions and high-profile, Nobel Prize-potential basic science."

. The politics surrounding breast cancer research and its fundraising have also been much debated. In a 2003 CBC report, Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action (a grassroots breast cancer education and advocacy group), said the messages of Breast Cancer Awareness Month are too "simplified and so fail to convey the realities of breast cancer." She also charged that many corporations that claim to support breast cancer awareness are actually producing products that contribute to the disease. (See the additional clip "Pink-washing.")
Medium: Radio
Program: IDEAS
Broadcast Date: April 30, 1975
Guest(s): Marvin Blackstein, Daniel Greenburg, Tak Mak, Peter Scolefield, Robert Yaes
Producer: Max Allen
Duration: 7:39

Last updated: September 18, 2013

Page consulted on December 5, 2013

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