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“We award the limited funds to the best projects”

Today, about 200 research proposals are submitted each year to the Swiss Cancer League (SCL) and its partner organization, the Swiss Cancer Research foundation (SCR) – about twice as many as were received 20 years ago. Many are high-quality grant proposals for which there is unfortunately not enough funding available, says Nancy Hynes, president of the Scientific Committee.

Prof. Dr. Nancy Hynes

Nancy Hynes, what motivates you to work on a voluntary basis on the Scientific Committee of the SCL and SCR? 
The work is very diverse and exciting. Reading so many research grant applications keeps you abreast of the latest scientific developments. Besides that, after having received funding so often for my own research projects, I want to give something back – and do the research community a service. 

You are the president of the Scientific Committee. Are your tasks different than the tasks of the other members of the Scientific Committee? 
Yes, as president I look at all of the research proposals – and then assign them to individual members of the Committee. Here the content of the proposal naturally plays a role. For instance, if the research proposal addresses psychosocial questions, different knowledge is required than for projects that examine the molecular mechanisms of a cancer. But I also try to distribute the workload – that is, the number of research proposals that we review and evaluate – as fairly as possible among the members. Today, about twice as many research proposals are submitted to us than were submitted 20 years ago. This naturally increases the effort required for evaluation of the proposals. “We award the limited funds to the best projects”.

How are the members of the Scientific Committee chosen? 
When a member’s term of office is up, which is the case after nine years (maximum), we look for a successor with similar expertise. Sometimes, the member leaving the Committee points us towards good people. We then look at the candidates’ publications. With candidates from Switzerland, we also check whether the person was awarded grants from us in the past for their research proposals. A person who writes good research proposals also tends to be able to assess others’ proposals. Often, someone will stand out who has been an external reviewer: When an expert always sends us high-quality and well-thought-out evaluations on time, we know that we can rely on that person. 

Each research proposal is reviewed by at least two members of the Scientific Committee and in addition by external reviewers. How often do the reviewers disagree on the quality of a proposal? 
It almost never happens that one reviewer finds a research proposal great and another finds it of little value. Of course, there are diverging assessments, but when you look more closely it mostly turns out that they concern nuances, a different weighting of details or different evaluations regarding how important the proposed cancer topic is. 

Is a lack of importance of the cancer topic the most frequent reason for not selecting a research project for funding? 
No, that is rarely the case. It is much more often that we find a research proposal good but cannot fund it because we must award the limited funds available to the best research projects. That is why we unfortunately have to turn down many projects that do not make it to the top.