An idea to promote innovation in cancer research

Over the last couple of months, I’ve written periodically about cancer research and the complaints that the present system of funding grants and of peer review stifles innovation, as well as whether ideas for which there is some evidence but which fall out of the mainstream are given a fair shake. My overall take has been that, while the complaints have some merit, those making them tend to overstate their case dramatically. Either that, or their obvious agendas, such as making it easier to get funding for pseudoscience or rehabilitating the reputation of a crank, make it obvious that their real complaint about government grant funding or peer review is that it keeps their favored pseudoscience out. This is unfortunate, because there are indeed shortcomings in our present system that do tend to favor “safe” science over more radical ideas. Over the weekend, I came across a rather interesting idea to fund innovative ideas in cancer research:

A group of New York investors will award $1 million a year to the person with the “best idea” in cancer research — and the idea will be shared worldwide.

The “Gotham Prize” will encourage novel thinking and counter the competitive interests that can hinder progress, its creators said yesterday.

The first $1 million will be awarded next February. An advisory board that includes scientists from Harvard University, the Johns Hopkins University and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey will select the winners, who can use the money any way they choose.

“It’s going to encourage people to talk to each other and collaborate,” said Joseph R. Bertino, interim director of the cancer institute. “Well get out-of-the-box thinking.”

Organizers say the award is unique in the world of medical research. They will pre-qualify members, who will post their ideas and concepts on a Web site, www.gothamprize.org. Other researchers and scientists viewing the site can build on the ideas, or perhaps assist or collaborate on individual projects.

“We’re trying to encourage people to share their ideas. Even if four or five great ideas come out of this it will be worth it,” said Gary Curhan, a medical researcher and physician at Harvard Medical School. He created the prize with hedge fund managers Joel Greenblatt and Robert Goldstein of the private investment firm Gotham Capital in New York.

One aim is for the Web site to help foundations and companies discover ideas that need funding — and for scientists to find potential sources of money for their ideas.

Curhan said many good ideas do not get funded because researchers do not have enough preliminary data to attract government funding or because the ideas go against the grain.

Greenblatt said he and Goldstein, his partner, found similar ways to share ideas useful in the business world and thought the concept would work in medical research.

“Even people who don’t win but post their ideas may get some funding or they may get collaborators to help them,” Greenblatt said. The ideas can involve cancer prevention, causes, diagnosis or treatment.

I like this idea. Indeed, it’s not unlike the concept behind an NIH R21 award, which (allegedly) requires no preliminary data or an Army Idea Award, which also (allegedly) does require no preliminary data. The difference, is that it’s a lot more money, as an Idea Award is only $300,000 over three years, and an R21 is only a one year award of even less than that. One million dollars would, in fact, represent more money than the typical R01 grant, at least in direct costs that the researcher can access. (My R01, by comparison provides me $887,500 over five years in direct costs, although that number is shrinking yearly as the NIH lops 2-3% off the yearly budget in each successive year of the grant.)

My only quibble is that, if sufficient funding could be found, there should be different levels of this sort of award, depending upon the idea. Some ideas don’t need $1 million for a feasibility study, while others need more. In any case, depending upon how rigorous the peer review for these awards is (and I have little reason to doubt that the standards will be high, given that Joseph Bertino, Bert Vogelstein, and other luminaries are on the Advisory Board), it’s a good start.

Come to think of it, it would be rather interesting to see if Peter Duesberg would put his money where his mouth is and submitted a proposal based on his chromosomal aneuploidy hypothesis of cancer to compete for this year’s Gotham Prize, don’t you think This is the sort of mechanism that seems custom-designed for his idea.