Since we launched the scheme in early 2015 we’ve already funded a range of proposals that bring new Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS) approaches to bear on existing cancer problems. With the next deadline approaching, I thought it would be great timing to share my views on what makes a great Multidisciplinary Project Award proposal stand out from the crowd, alongside advice from Professor Sir Mike Brady, (Department of Oncology, University of Oxford) who chairs the expert review panel that assesses applications.
1) Take time to understand each other and build your research partnership
This award scheme is a long-term commitment between EPSRC and CRUK planned in until 2020. So the good news is you have plenty of time to develop a new, relevant partnership and apply for funding. The scheme is about joining together multidisciplinary teams of researchers and bringing their combined skills to bear on cancer.
Perhaps your research interests aren’t relevant to cancer? Or maybe you don’t know much about EPS disciplines? But it’s not until you start a dialogue with people from a different discipline that you will start to learn about the issues, develop your own understanding, and open up new opportunities for your research. We are really keen to see new collaborations and researchers who have never worked in cancer getting involved.
Mike Brady, an engineer who moved into cancer research, has found it an extremely interesting challenge,
Effective collaboration with someone from another field is never easy. My own tactic has always been to approach the life scientist or medic as the “custodian of the problem”, then explore how we, as EPS researchers, can help those in life sciences and medicine address their problems. Multidisciplinary projects rest fundamentally on developing trust between the partners. Trust is gained slowly but can be lost in an instant.
So whether you are a cancer researcher or from an EPS discipline, make sure you take the time to find the right partner to work with and then develop a common language between the two fields. It’s the only way to really bring a shared understanding of the problem and determine how both partners’ skills can contribute to a co-designed project that spans multiple disciplines.
2) Ground your EPS research in a clear biological or cancer question
It’s important to start with a clear biological or cancer question in mind. This will help frame your research proposal and contextualise the EPS research component. It’s vital to show the panel why your EPS is exciting and ambitious, and how it will help progress the cancer field, enabling progress on challenging cancer problems which otherwise would not be possible.
Research published last year from Swansea University’s College of Engineering provides a brilliant example of a biological question leading to development of a new EPS technique. The method, which can be used to identify different cell types – such as cancer cells-uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms. The method has been developed using similar principals to those in face or fingerprint recognition software. It shows how by understanding and working from a biological question or need, new EPS approaches can be developed, in this case bringing artificial intelligence technologies to tackle cell classification in cancer.
Mike supports starting from a biological or cancer question,
One thing is for sure: don’t push your EPS as a solution to a problem you do not understand.
It’s only by developing a shared understanding of the cancer problem that the need can be understood and new, appropriate EPS approaches can be identified and developed.
3) Give equal weighting to both the cancer and the Engineering and Physical Science aspects
Given that your proposal is multidisciplinary in nature, you need to appeal to all the relevant disciplines at peer review. Don’t lose sight of the fact that this particular scheme is being supported by two funders. Your proposal should discuss the research questions and impacts from the perspective of both the cancer and EPS elements of the proposal. If you’re looking at the impacts that will be delivered, think about the benefits to the field of cancer as well as to the EPS disciplines involved.
On framing your proposal, Mike advises us,
from the outset, the review panel is looking for a genuine two-way collaborations between EPS and life science or medicine. We do need to be convinced that both sides are bringing something key to the project.
4) Write a single coherent research project
Your proposal needs to clearly bring the EPS and cancer aspects into an integrated coherent research plan aimed at answering the fundamental questions in cancer. It will inevitably take time to develop new EPS approaches to a point where they have clear clinical applicability and the potential to impact on detection, diagnosis or treatment. Integrating your research from the outset will increase the likelihood of identifying a pathway to clinical application in the future. It will also allow help you demonstrate to the panel the broader applicability of your research to other cancer problems. Even at this level applicants should address how their research answers a fundamental question about cancer and how it might move us closer to one day beating this disease.
5) Show us where the novelty lies
Successful proposals are those that demonstrate new approaches & ambitious EPS research able to contribute to tackling cancer problems. Tell us what the EPS is, how it will actually be delivered and why it is important both to cancer and to EPS.
Mike gives one last suggestion on the proposal,
like all fundable research, it should have a component of adventure, discovery and creativity.
The funding scheme is currently open and there are numerous rounds over the next few years, so there is plenty of time to develop a collaboration and submit a proposal. Processing of applications to this joint venture is being led by CRUK and CRUK Research Funding Manager, Richard, is on hand to answer any questions you have.