The Logic Behind a Push to Support Underfunded Young Cancer Researchers?

Well, here we are again. It’s late spring, and the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance recently announced the winners of the 2015 Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators in Cancer Research. This is only the prize’s second year of existence, but it’s already made some big waves.

In fact, it's hard to think of a new research award that has received so much traction so quickly. The back story is that last year, the Pershing Square Foundation teamed up with the Sohn Conference Foundation to form the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance (PSSCRA) to help accelerate cancer cures research. The idea was pretty simple: Find innovative young cancer researchers in New York City and give them a pile of money. How big? The awards are $200,000 per year, for three years. Nice, right? 

Pershing Square is the foundation created by the hedge fund billionaire Bill Ackman and his wife Karen, and it's a funder we watch closely because of its keen focus on finding breakthrough approaches to back. The Sohn Conference Foundation is an outfit created by Wall Streeters and dedicated to the treatment and cure of pediatric cancer.

Related: Cancer Philanthropy, Wall Street Style

Because this is interesting stuff, we decided to reach out to Olivia Flatto, co-founder and Executive Director of PSSCRA to dig deeper into what its prizes are all about and why the organizations is focusing on the young and the brilliant, and limiting its awards to New York City.

As Flatto tells the story, PSSCRA was created to push the envelope in cancer funding. 

What we had felt when we started the program is that there was a really big gap in funding young scientists for innovative and risky ideas. The government funds incremental research and safe projects. Risky ideas are very hard to be funded. It’s actually very hard for young scientists—who do their best work in the first seven years of their career—to see getting their first NIH grant.

Flatto says that the average age of a scientist receiving his or her first NIH grant is around 42, which doesn’t exactly fall into the sweet spot of the first seven years of their careers. And it doesn't help matters that, according to Flatto, over the past 10 years, NIH funding has dropped over by around 25 percent, and of the NIHs around $30 million budget, only $5.5 million is dedicated to cancer research. The whole situation is pretty discouraging if you're a young person considering a career in cancer research. Says Flatto:

It’s a real crisis in the cancer research field and in science in general, because for young scientists and those who want to be scientists, they may not to embrace science as a career. If there are no young scientists, there is no pipeline, there is no innovation. 

What’s more, is that much of the research money is going toward translational research rather than basic research, and this a major issue for PSSCRA:

If all the (NIH) funding goes to translational, where does innovation then come from? And again and again in research we know that the most incredible research and discoveries were made in basic research. 

And what's particularly maddening, says Flatto, is that money for basic research is scarce at a time when there's a lot of excitement around life science and cancer research with new areas of research, like immunotherapy, emerging to offer tantalizing hopes of big new breakthroughs. 

Philanthropy is often called "risk capital" and PSSCRA is a good example of that mindset. The research that this funder likes to fund is considered risky because there is typically only preliminary data to support the case for further investigation. But in the cancer research field, Flatto says, funders tend to like solid data and can be risk averse. PSSCRA's view, in contrast, is that it's okay to fail. "It’s actually a very good space for a program like ours to jump in," says Flatto.

There are not many promising young scientists in the world, but PSCCRA is keeping its prize within the greater New York Area with no immediate plans to expand to other cities in the near future. So why New York?

This was created because New York has an incredible amount of excellent academic institutions, there’s a big push from the previous administration to turn New York into much more of a life sciences place. The quality of the research is just so spectacular, and again, the funding is really in a big crisis, and starting with New York was really, for us, a way to better bring the scientists together with the pharma community and the business community, because geographically, it made sense to organize the prize around them.

Speaking of business and pharma, PSSCRA gives special attention to connecting its grantees to leaders in these sectors. Not only does this help to bring the researchers out of isolation and shine a spotlight on their work, but it helps to further develop collaborative efforts and help the grantees get more funding down the road—which is what PSSCRA is hoping will happen once grant awards come to an end after three years.  

Science may be an exact discipline governed by proofs and hard evidence, but according to Olivia Flatto, “The beauty of science is that nobody knows what’s going to happen next.” Philanthropy should embrace that unknown realm. 

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