Young put off cancer study

June 1, 2007

Lack of long-term funding deters new scientists from careers in UK cancer research. Rebecca Attwood reports.

Too many young scientists in the UK are asking why anyone would choose a career in academic cancer research, according to Newton's Apple, a new science think-tank.

A lack of long-term funding and an increasingly competitive funding environment are discouraging young scientists from staying in the profession, says the first report from Newton's Apple on the future of UKcancer research.

Mia Nybrant, the organisation's director, said many of the issues raised in the report were relevant to young scientists across the sector and would be developed through the think-tank's new forum, Newton's Heirs, which aims to give career scientists a voice in the policymaking process.

The negative aspects of young career scientists' experiences of the funding environment and career prospects "urgently" need to be addressed, the report says.

Many young scientists are put off by the sight of their mentors and role models becoming "frustrated paper-pushers" and being taken away from the laboratory as they move up the career ladder, according to the report, Cancer Vision 2025: The Science Pathway to Effective Treatments and Services .

Charlotte Bevan, a senior lecturer in Imperial College London's department of oncology and a member of the think-tank's working group, heads a team of PhD and postdoctoral students. She said: "Younger scientists start to worry as soon as they come towards the end of their PhD. They feel under pressure to write papers and apply for grants - they seem to feel they have to get on to the treadmill much earlier. Some funding bodies are offering more fellowships, and that is a move in the right direction, but the competition is huge."

From 2004 to 2006, just 17 per cent of applications for Medical Research Council grants lasting up to five years resulted in an award, the report says.

Dr Bevan said: "Paradoxically, the further you do progress in research, the more you are taken away from the bench and burdened with administration and paperwork. In the US, scientific and managerial roles are often divided, but that doesn't seem to happen so much over here.

"Three-year grant cycles mean that for successful, ongoing projects, principal investigators have to start applying for more funding in the final year of the project, as it can often take six to 12 months between submitting the application and the funding becoming available.

"Grant-writing is a fact of life - it is important to formulate new ideas and expose them to peer review - but at worst it can take valuable time away from actually carrying out and publishing the research itself."

The report calls for five-year project grants to become the normal minimum.

Where this is not possible, scientists working on successful or promising projects should be able to apply for a two-year extension, judged via an abridged review process, it recommends.

It warns that the current funding system discourages researchers from taking the risk of pursuing new ideas or from opening up new fields, meaning that too little research is "truly innovative".

The report, which describes UK cancer research as some of the best in the world, calls for more focus on prevention and early detection of cancer.

Collaboration between industry and academia needs to be further strengthened to enable effective translational research, it says, and the possibilities of "personalised" medicine planned for.

Ms Nybrant said she hoped the report would help to inform the Department of Health's Cancer Reform Strategy.

"A lot of interaction between science and policy happens at a very high level. We want the policy process to benefit from the perspective of young scientists who are still at the bench," she said.

For more information on Newton's Heirs, or to read the full report, go to www.newtons-apple.org.uk

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

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