The New York Times Hits Nerve on Cancer Grants

Yesterday’s The New York Times featured a front-page story suggesting that the government’s approach to funding cancer research—particularly at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—pushes scientists to “play it safe” and steer clear of bold ideas. The article, by Gina Kolata, touched on points scientists have complained about for years, and generated a blizzard of mostly supportive comments on the Times’s Web site. More than 200 people have weighed in so far, many of them frustrated researchers, grant reviewers, and others inside and outside the cancer field.

A number of scientists, both those commenting and those quoted in the original article, said it hasn’t always been this bad. They attribute some cautiousness to years of tight budgets under the Bush Administration. Several commenters defended the current system, particularly in an age of tough funding: “There is a limited amount of money. VERY limited,” wrote Rosa from Ohio, who said she’s reviewed NIH grants for the last 8 years. “We cannot possibly fund every wild idea without any proof of basic feasibility.”

But from the sound of it, there’s a yearning, among some at least, for wilder studies at the expense of tame ones, in the hope that they will actually make a difference.