Develop the cancer research leaders of tomorrow: our progress
In our strategy we pledged to support researchers at every stage of their career: attracting and inspiring the next generation, training outstanding individuals and developing and recruiting the leaders of the future.
By working closely with the research community we’ve been able to identify skills gaps and evaluate our personal and training award schemes, and run networking and career meetings for different peer groups. Behind the scenes, and with invaluable input from the community, we conduct policy research, working with the government to ensure the UK remains an attractive environment for researchers.
We said we would...
We remain committed to supporting researchers at all career stages, and offer a pipeline of funding opportunities for all levels – from PhD students through to senior scientists. For example, we have increased our training portfolio from 463 students & 88 active fellowships/bursaries in 2014, to 541 & 134 respectively in 2017. In addition to financial support, we run a series of events with our researchers, providing opportunities such as peer group networking meetings, sessions on career planning and training in non-scientific topics, such as communicating about research.
In 2016 we ran an All Fellows Meeting which brought all CRUK-funded Fellows to network and share experiences. Committee members and senior CRUK staff attended to meet the Fellows and give their input. Fellows presented their research in sessions on big data, cancer imaging, multidisciplinary research and immunology and were encouraged to present challenges they are facing. This approach is providing a valuable forum in which the Fellows can ask for advice and learn from senior staff.
Clinician scientists were recognised in our strategy as a critical group for cancer research and one where there was a significant deficit. To be able to fund more of these important roles, we worked with the clinical research community to evolve our Clinician Scientist Fellowship (CSF) scheme, which now has increased flexibility, a larger budget, and is separated into two distinct strands – the CSF and Advanced CSF.
Since the two schemes launched, applications have almost doubled, and six CSFs and five Advanced CSFs were offered funding in 2016/17. Our aim is to fund up to eight CSF or Advanced CSF awards each year.
We launched a Postdoctoral Research Bursary for Clinical Trainees to bridge the gap between the Clinical Research Training Fellowship (CRTF) and the CSF, providing costs for trainees to maintain research activity. We awarded five bursaries in 2016/17.
To ensure that optimal training, support and career development is being offered to early career scientists throughout our Centres Network, we introduced guidelines that outline best practice and expectations for PhDs and CRTFs. This includes an emphasis on providing mentoring and ongoing support for clinicians who have completed their Fellowships to enable them to continue their research once they return to clinical training.
More broadly, CRUK continues to work with other organisations to ensure that the environment is conducive for academic clinical research. For example, we helped develop the Clinical Principles and Obligations Report, which provides national guidance for UK institutions for Clinical Academic Trainees, and we provided input into the implementation of the Junior Doctors Contract to ensure that this group is not disadvantaged by the changes.
Mathematics was identified in our strategy as becoming increasingly important in cancer research. In addition to funding more research that includes a focus on mathematical skills through our Centres and Institutes, we are delighted to see mathematics playing a key role in new projects such as Multidisciplinary Project Awards and Grand Challenge.
In partnership with the Pathological Society we hope to address a crucial skills gap by enabling more pathology trainees to gain research experience and apply for a CRTF. We maintain a close collaboration with the Medical Research Council (MRC) on its Molecular Pathology Nodes Call. This aims to bring together academic researchers, industry, and genetic and pathology diagnostic service laboratories, to establish multidisciplinary centres ('nodes') with high quality capability in the discovery and development of molecular pathology tests.
Our new awards for clinical academics aim to tackle some of the barriers they can face when forging a research career, by providing funding opportunities at every stage of their career pathway, offering greater flexibility, and increasing the number of fellowships available.
Professor Peter Johnson, CRUK Chief Clinician
This continues to be a key objective, as strong leadership in our priority strategic areas is crucial to making faster progress especially in areas where we need to gain momentum.
As just two selected examples, Professor Greg Hannon moved to the CRUK Cambridge Institute in 2015 after 23 years at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in New York. A pioneer in the field of RNA interference (RNAi), his achievements include defining the key components of the RNAi machinery, designing synthetic RNAs that can silence mammalian genes, and generating comprehensive libraries of these RNAs representing every gene in the human, mouse and rat genomes. Professor Hannon is now Chair of the CRUK Pioneer Award Committee, and is leading one of the Grand Challenge-funded teams to create a 3D map of a tumour.
Also at Cambridge, Professor Richard Gilbertson returned to the UK in 2015 to lead the Department of Oncology and CRUK Major Centre at the University of Cambridge after 15 years at the St Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. One of the world's leading experts in childhood brain tumours, Professor Gilbertson has led international efforts that have dramatically advanced knowledge of the biology of several of these cancers.
In June 2014 we launched the Programme Foundation Award (PFA) to address a gap in our support for exceptional mid-career scientists. Our aim was to fund up to 10 projects per year to allow excellent cancer researchers with 8–14 years' experience post-PhD to establish or further develop their own independent research group.
We have funded 13 PFAs since 2015, and continue to receive high quality applications. We would hope in future to see PFA researchers competing for our senior academic programme awards.
Supporting independent research careers
Dr Simona Parrinello, a stem cell biologist based in the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre at Imperial College London, is using funds from our new PFA to take her research in a new direction by focusing on glioblastoma – one of our strategic priorities.
As a stem cell biologist studying adult neurogenesis, Simona hopes to use insight from this work to develop her understanding of glioblastoma, which contain stem-like cells and shares many properties with normal neurogenesis.
Our focus in brain tumour research and funding from the PFA allowed Simona to realise this potential, allowing her to double the size of her team and significantly increase the resources available to them.
This is crucial for allowing her to follow new lines of investigation in her work, she says: "The Programme Foundation Award allows me to build upon the current strengths of my lab team and consolidate the group to transition to the next stage of my independent career. Without the CRUK funding, our cancer work would not continue."
We remain committed to ensuring all publications from CRUK-funded researchers are made freely available. In 2015 we joined several other research funders to form the Charity Open Access Fund to better support the costs of open access publishing and in September 2016 confirmed our ongoing commitment to this following a two-year pilot. Access to the fund by our researchers has increased steadily since 2014/15 and we are now able to better measure compliance with our open access policy.
In addition to our continued support of Universities UK's Concordat to Support Research Integrity, we've also published Research Integrity: Guidelines for Scientific Conduct which defines scientific misconduct and provides guidance to host institutions regarding the kinds of policies and procedures we expect them to have in place.
Since early 2016 we've provided dedicated support to researchers in developing and implementing data sharing plans in accordance with our policy, and grant applicants can now seek data management costs as part of their grant application.