Cancer Grants and Social Change

July 7, 2009 Leave a comment

The thing with paradigms is that they inform EVERYTHING we look at, a paradigm is a lens with which we make sense of the world. This is why a paradigm has an uncanny ability to replicate itself in system after system. I recently read a fascinating article in the New York Times, Grant System Leads Cancer Researchers to Play It Safe, and while it focused on the world of science, it described conditions that are easily identified throughout the social sector. I identified more than 15 such similarities, here are just four of them:

  • The grant system has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with a focus on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer.
  • It has become lore among cancer researchers that some game-changing discoveries involved projects deemed too unlikely to succeed and were therefore denied grants, forcing researchers to struggle mightily to continue.
  • “There is no conversation that I have ever had about the grant system that doesn’t have an incredible sense of consensus that it is not working. That is a terrible wasted opportunity for the scientists, patients, the nation and the world.”
  • Some experienced scientists have found a way to offset the problem somewhat. They do chancy experiments by siphoning money from their grants. “In a way, the system is encrypted,” Dr. Yamamoto said, allowing those in the know to wink and do their own thing on the side.

I believe in the power of creative tension, maybe we are supposed to struggle in order to innovate. But I don’t believe that all the good people who are caught up in the funder-grantee vicious cycle are actually trying to generate this tension. The fact is something is not working and all in the sector can see it, but we have not found our way out of this dysfunction. As we tackle this problem I like the language of paradigms because it allows us to identify the dominant (and dying) paradigm in order to be forced to shift and make the bold courageous moves that will allow us to do something new.

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  • Curtis says:

    Well said. It often seems that innovation springs to life when the odds are stacked against us, and I wonder if it has to be that way. Especially when lives are on the line.

  • Andria Winther says:

    Here’s what I find troubling: dominant paradigm,yes–dying? not so sure, looks firmly in entrenched….scarily so!I’d love to believe that this outrage is ripe for change, and…..

  • Gibran says:


    I’m with you, it feels like we have enough odds against us to generate all the creative tension that we need, it is specially detrimental when what’s working against us is coming from within our efforts to help!


    Change seems to happen “all of the sudden” – suddenly things tip. I see signs everywhere of a paradigm that has thoroughly exhausted itself, it is what got us here and it is now done, it must die, as all things must, and it will hold on tight to it’s last breath… but it is on the way out, it really is!

  • Andria Winther says:


    Believing, trusting, knowing the tip will happen certainly helps!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Here’s the tricky part. How consciously/deliberately do those tips happen? Can we, in fact, increase the odds that things will tip, and tip in a useful direction? I sure hope so, though I often wonder!

  • Gibran says:

    I think that’s the right question Cynthia, my belief is that the aggregate of all of our small actions do indeed add up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Social science falls flat in its efforts to predict, but it does great in piecing together a story of “what happened” – over and over again these stories point to all the small actions that added up to a shift – my hope is that we are part of that process.

    Andria – EXACTLY!

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