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Aiming for the stars? Announcing our plans for a Grand Challenge

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

2 March 2015

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A participant at our 'Big Think' posts an idea to the wall

Nearly 100 years ago, Raymond Orteig – a well-to-do New York hotel owner – offered $25,000 to “courageous aviators” to build a plane to cross the Atlantic.

In doing so, he helped change the world. In 1927, after a marathon 30-hour solo flight, Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St Louis in Paris to claim the Orteig Prize.

And it wasn’t the first time the ‘grand prize’ approach revolutionised things. Two hundred years earlier, the British Government’s Longitude Prize had cracked the challenges facing maritime navigation. Just like the Orteig Prize, the breakthrough – this time by a humble watchmaker – jump-started international trade, and changed the face of society.

Crossing oceans – either by plane or boat – is dangerous. Both of these pioneering projects were hugely risky. But in order to achieve big things, you have to take big risks.

Our quest to beat cancer is a feat much more complex than flying a plane over the sea. It’s harder even than going to the moon and back.

But given that one in two people will develop cancer at some point in their lives, we urgently need a breakthrough. So just like Orteig and the pioneers of the Longitude Prize, we want to see if we can offer a prize to make a giant leap forward in cancer.

So, last week, we kicked off our Grand Challenge – a £20 million prize to solve a problem that will revolutionise our understanding of the disease.

It might sound lofty and idealistic, but we think we need this kind risk-taking if we’re to reach our vision of beating cancer.

So, how will it work?

Focusing on the question

The key to a successful challenge is to define the question you’re trying to solve. ‘Curing cancer’ is too big and too vague to focus minds. We need to break the issue down into smaller, more manageable chunks, and frame the question properly.

So last week, we gathered together 100 of the brightest minds in the UK for our first ‘Big Think’ event. These included cancer researchers, clinicians, patients, engineers, physicists, behaviour scientists, epidemiologists, technologists and more from the across the globe..

And, over a day and a half, the teams chewed over some of the biggest issues in cancer. How can we detect it early? How can we stop it spreading? How can we change the way it’s treated? Can we prevent it in the first place? How do we share information about the disease?

The aim at the event – one of two we’re running – is to try to boil the big, intractable set of issues in cancer research into concrete, manageable ‘Challenges’ for further thought and discussion.

It’s the beginning of a new venture for us, and we have no idea where it will lead.

What happens next?

Great minds at work at our first 'Big Think'

Great minds at work at our first ‘Big Think’

Ultimately, we aim to extract from these sessions a series of realistic, achievable ‘challenges’ – statements of intent with clear boundaries.

We’ll analyse the results – we’re expecting hundreds – and group them together into themes and patterns. And then, later this year, we’ll pass the results to our Grand Challenge Advisory Panel to refine them into up to six ambitious, scientifically robust challenges.

We’re incredibly proud of the calibre of people who have agreed to sit on the panel so far, which draws together some of the best minds in science. They are:

  • Dr Rick Klausner, Chief Medical Officer at Illumina and former Executive Director for Global Health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who will chair the panel.

And we will build this panel over the coming months to include more leading thinkers and innovators, from both within and outside the cancer research community.

Over the coming months, they’ll distil the ideas generated at our Big Thinks into four to six key Challenges, which we’ll share with the public for comment, discussion and debate.

And then we’ll invite the scientific community around the world to form collaborative groups from across different scientific disciplines, and submit proposals as to how to tackle these Challenges. The best idea will get £20 million – to be staggered over five years – to carry out the research in their proposal.

A flexible approach

Some of this sounds a bit vague – and it is: it’s the first time we’ve done anything like this, we’ll be running this process flexibly – adapting as we go, and as the ideas emerge.

For instance, the exact number of the Challenges is still up for discussion, as are the precise dates and milestones for the project. This is partly because some of it depends on the nature of the Challenges themselves – some might need more time to refine than others.

But regardless, through this blog and on social media (using the hashtag #CRUKGrandChallenge) we’ll keep the world abreast of our progress across this uncharted territory, as we take what we hope will be a giant leap forward in our understanding of cancer.

– Henry