Cancer Grants and Social ChangeJuly 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.