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Guest fighter: Sarah Vollett

I joined the Canadian Cancer Society earlier this year, working as a project coordinator in the Volunteer Engagement department. Even though I now work with volunteers, cancer research is where I started my career. I have worked as both a lab researcher and a project coordinator, and I have seen some incredible science in action. I know what research looks like to the grad students performing experiments day in and day out, and to the principal investigators who constantly write grants to ensure they cover their labs’ costs. But now that I work for the Society, I wanted to see what research looked like to a funding organization. So I decided to volunteer as a Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute (CCSRI) community representative.

The CCSRI is a granting agency that specifically funds cancer research. In 2011-12, CCSRI funded more than $46 million to support close to 300 research projects across Canada. Because there are many scientists competing for limited funds, there needs to be a process to determine the science most deserving of funding. This process is called peer review: applications are reviewed by other active scientists within the same field of research, who gauge the proposal’s scientific merit.

Every year, CCSRI recruits a large number of cancer researchers to review and score the applications and decide which are most deserving of funding. These scientific reviewers are accountable to the peer review process, which is at the heart of the scientific endeavour, and they volunteer their time for these panels. Ultimately though, the funding for CCSRI grants comes from the Society and its donors. And so, in addition to scientific reviewers, CCSRI also recruits community representatives from among the Society’s staff and volunteers.

Community representatives provide the panel with accountability and transparency – they help ensure that all funded projects are relevant to cancer and help advance the Society’s mission, and they serve as witnesses who go back to their communities and report on the review process. And, most excitingly in my opinion, the community representatives are also asked to comment on the grants’ public summaries.

The public summary asks the applicant to explain the project in non-technical language, so that if project is funded, Society’s donors can understand the science they have funded. It is very easy for scientists to slip into technical language when writing – that is the language they speak, day in and day out. I believe however, that explaining the science that is being carried out with the money they have received is one of the most important accountabilities that scientists have to their funders. So I am excited to get to play my part, however small, in helping to hold scientists accountable to not just their peers, but also to their donors.

<<Sarah Vollett will be participating in the Innovation Grant Panel 1a: Biomarkers and Genomics, on December 2nd in Toronto. She will be writing a second blog post in December describing the review process, before and during the panel meeting>>