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‘Send us your risky ideas’

US-based cancer charity says European applicants can win funding with the right approach

Research charity the Children’s Tumor Foundation funds research worldwide on the genetic disorders neurofibromatosis (NF) and Schwannomatosis, which cause nervous system tumours.

Founded in 1978 in the US, CTF is now well-established and has distributed $42 million (£31m) in funding to scientists and clinicians, principally via its calls supporting early career researchers, consortia and clinical trial pilots. It had provided $2.5m for European NF research by the time it launched a European legal entity for fundraising and advocacy in 2018.

Annette Bakker, president of the CTF, is keen to up that figure, especially via the Young Investigator Award, which is CTF’s longest-running funding programme. Letters of intent for the scheme are due by 1 January.

The award offers two years’ salary and 10 per cent of indirect costs to early career researchers. For the first time in 2021, postdoctoral grantees will be able to apply to extend the award for an extra third year. The salary and costs available are dependent on the applicant’s experience, ranging from a maximum of $32,000 per year for pre-doctoral applicants, to $58,000 per year for those with at least five years’ postdoctoral experience.

The CTF sets aside $1.5—$2m for the programme each year, meaning that a maximum of 10 awards are available, although only if they satisfy its reviewers. “We’ve had years where we fund three because the quality’s just not there,” Bakker says.

Applicants must propose research relevant to either of the subtypes of the disorder, NF1 or NF2, or to the closely related condition Schwannomatosis. The foundation tends to receive a lot more proposals for work on NF1, which occurs about 10 times more than NF2 or Schwannomatosis. Even though the latter two are very rare conditions, programme managers try to represent all three disorders in each round of awards, she says.

Bakker earned her PhD in biochemistry from the University of Antwerp, and is keen for more European researchers to apply. She says that if they do, though, they should try to write their bids in line with the American style of grant writing. She says that European applications often have “a lot of writing going on, whereas when you are given an American application, it’s like ‘aim one: a, b, c; aim two: a, b, c’”.

In addition to the heavily structured text, US applications tend to be “very focused” on a single research problem or a discrete chunk of a big problem. She says: “What I like about American grant writing is you solve one problem with one grant, not 50.” Europeans also have a possibly related tendency to underestimate the costs of these ambitious proposals, she adds.

The idea that US funders do not give grants to European scientists because of their location is a “myth”, Bakker reckons. To win US funding, European scientists might just require a little extra help. “Try to find a mentor; try to find somebody who has successfully obtained money from American funders,” she suggests to first-time applicants.

But who to turn to? Bakker says that those keen to understand the subtleties of US grant writing should search the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) database of past awards for European researchers and approach them. The CDMRP, she says, is a rare, publicly funded programme that supports NF research and is open to European scientists. It is administered, somewhat bizarrely, by the US Department of Defense rather than the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

As a capacity-building scheme for a rare disease, a major factor for award reviewers is applicants’ commitment to work on NF in the long or at least medium term. Although this can be tricky to determine—the NF field has significant overlaps with cancer and other tumour biologies—Bakker says reviewers will easily spot disingenuous attempts.

“If we read between the lines that ‘I saw you guys have money so I want to get some for melanoma and then squeeze NF in there’, that’s not going to fly,” she says. On the other hand, genuine applicants will have likely attempted to make approaches to existing NF researchers, particularly if neither they nor their lab head have experience in the field—something that is not a prerequisite, Bakker adds.

As well as looking for inspiration in the existing NF literature, prospective applicants could also make themselves attractive by making use of data from the NF Data Portal, which the foundation partly funds, she suggests.

Finally, Bakker says it pays to remember that, like other specialist funders, the CTF works like a prospector, spreading smaller grants around in the hope of striking a promising development that can draw support from the major players. “We are really there to de-risk, fill that gap and do that thing which nobody else would be doing,” she says. “We love risk. Let people send us their risky ideas; once they’re de-risked there are a lot of people out there—Cancer Research UK, the NIH, the European Union.”

Accordingly, if a scientist has a “technology or methodology that was never used in NF before”, but has proved its potential in other conditions, they should “absolutely apply”, she says. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com