Texas put up a lot of money a few years ago for cancer research. “A lot”, in this case, means three billion, to be awarded by the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). This is where the money came to get K. C. Nicolaou for Rice University, for example, and much other research spending besides.
But – and I know that you’ll be shocked to hear this – it turns out that the distribution of such funds can end up being tainted by politics. A number of high-profile resignations have shaken up the effort – here’s an editorial by two of the most prominent (Nobel prominent, and now former) members who talk about what’s gone wrong:
The past eight months were difficult. Controversy flared when several well-regarded, multi-investigator, multi-institutional collaborative research projects were put in the freezer for months – not brought to the Oversight Committee for funding after strong recommendation by the Scientific Review Council.
This delay was at least partially based on the concern that several of these projects came from one institution. CPRIT’s executive director has offered different and conflicting explanations for this action.
Simultaneously, an expensive “commercialization” proposal, constructed and submitted in unorthodox ways that circumvented CPRIT’s rules, was rushed to the Oversight Committee and approved for $20 million for its initial year of operations, despite the absence of description or scientific review of its drug development program. This was ultimately corrected, albeit with great effort. . .
Texans deserve to hear the truth about cancer. They must understand that miracles will not happen in a short time. Progress will not be made by those who simply proclaim without explanation that they can do better than hundreds of skillfully staffed and well-financed pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. Real progress requires the concerted high-quality efforts of basic, translational and clinical investigators from the academic community collaborating with counterparts from the private sector when appropriate.
Here an example what they’re talking about. It looks like the sort of stuff you’d expect – backdoor maneuvering to bypass peer review and speed up funding. Texas should have expecting trouble like this; there’s no way that a pot of money this size could be distributed without grief. That would be true even if everything had gone smoothly – people outside research are often amazed when they realize the sums of money that can be thrown at these problems, sometimes to little visible effect. The history of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), a state-funded stem cell research effort, is instructive here – they haven’t quite had the controversies that Texas has, but the voters of California may well have expected more by now than they’ve feel they’ve received, which is a side effect of stem-cell hype. Add in some favoritism and fast dealing, and you have a real recipe for trouble.