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The Grand Challenges of Cancer Research

The concept of the “grand challenge”, of tasking researchers and others with trying to answer big questions to advance their fields, was introduced to charity in 2003 with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health program. That program set aside $450 million to award grants to researchers tackling big questions in global health.

The idea has caught on throughout the non-profit world. The newest program on this model is being sponsored by Cancer Research UK (CRUK), which has devoted about $153 million dollars over the next five years to support new cancer research. They aren’t just looking at any cancer research though, they have a few big questions that are yet to be answered, and which they’d like to see scientists tackle. Questions like whether or not cancer could be prevented with vaccines, or how to distinguish between dangerous and benign cancers.

The idea is to get people working on broad research that, eventually can lead to clinical or therapeutic results if not directly, than by inspiring other research. It’s based on a model developed in 1900 by mathematician David Hilbert, who set 22 large-scale challenges for his field.

Some of those challenges still haven’t been met, which is something that CRUK, and other charities using this model, want to avoid. The key is to set big goals that are at least hypothetically, possible to achieve, but which will take a certain amount of bravery and dedication to tackle. The idea is to attract, and support, research that might otherwise struggle to find funding, because it’s “too experimental.” Instead of funding “safe” research that is expected to turn around results quickly, these grants will help researchers with new ideas that don’t always seem like safe investments. Those kinds of ideas are important to explore though, as hunches can lead to some pretty amazing science when followed.