Skip to main content

Together we are beating cancer

Donate now

Our new Pioneer Awards funding scheme – high-risk, high-reward, high-impact

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

2 July 2015

0 comments 0 comments

Prof Nic Jones
Prof Nic Jones, speaking at our Researchers' Retreat

A year ago we published our latest Research Strategy, setting out how we intend to continue, and capitalise on, our rapidly exploding understanding of cancer.

The Strategy aimed to address a key question: how can we convert this accelerating scientific progress into improvements that make a real difference for people affected by the disease?

A key realisation we had was that ‘more of the same’ wasn’t good enough – we had to look at how to fund completely new areas of science, while making sure that the conventional high-quality laboratory and clinical cancer research we’ve always supported, can have even wider impact.

A year on, we can look back proudly on the successful launch of six new funding schemes, covering a range of different areas – mid-career help for up-and-coming scientists; funding to discover new ‘biological’ therapies and understand the immune system; a focus on multidisciplinary research – involving engineers and physicists – and on preventing cancer; and funding aimed at improving collaboration between our existing Centres.

We also launched an ambitious new Grand Challenge which, next year, will hand £20million to an international consortium of scientists, to solve a key question in cancer research.

And today, we’ve announced another new funding scheme to the UK research community: the Pioneer Award.

A ‘Dragons Den’ approach

When we spoke to the research community about how we could best help them make faster progress, two things cropped up again and again: many didn’t think we took enough risks in what we funded. And others said it could sometimes take too long to apply for funding – especially for smaller, more innovative projects.

The Pioneer Awards – launched this week at our biennial researchers’ get-together by our chief scientist, Professor Nic Jones – aims to address these concerns.

As of today, any researchers, no matter what their background or track record, will be able to pitch their ideas to our cross-disciplinary Pioneers Committee. We’re particularly keen to hear from people outside of biological and clinical science – for example, technology experts, software developers, or behavioural scientists.

We won’t require extensive, lengthy documentation up front – just a two-side outline of the idea, submitted anonymously, and why it will make a real difference in cancer.

The Committee will short-list the ideas they receive on a regular basis, and successful applicants will then be invited to pitch their idea, in person, to the panel.

“It’s almost like a Dragon’s Den approach,” Professor Jones told the audience.

If their idea is deemed scientifically credible, they’ll receive grants of up to £200,000, to cover two-year-long research projects.

This isn’t to replace any of our other funding schemes. It’s to fund high-risk, high-reward projects that wouldn’t be able to happen otherwise.

“We don’t know what we’re going to get,” Professor Jones remarked at the launch. “That’s the whole point of it. Not all of it will work – this is high risk stuff, I’m really excited that Cancer Research UK is doing this. If just a couple of the awards take off, it could be transformational for the field.”

The Committee members are excited too. Dr Helen Lee works on developing diagnostic tests for HIV and Chlamydia at the University of Cambridge’s Diagnostics Development Unit, and is also President and CEO of spin-out company Diagnostics for the Real World.

“I was very impressed by Cancer Research UK for launching this unique and innovative scheme,” she told us.

“The speed of the application process, availability to a breadth of new research audiences, and levelling the playing field by judging applications which are anonymous are all positive features which will increase the chance of funding some truly ground-breaking cancer research.”

“There’s nothing quite like it in the UK.”

The funding scheme is now open – you can read more about it on our website, and we’ll keep you updated with details of what it ends up funding as decisions are made.