Putting our region's cancer needs first

CEO's Blog

The latest charity news from North West Cancer Research CEO, Alastair Richards.

NWCR CEO Alastair Richards

In November I was fortunate enough to be invited to the ‘Researchfish Strategy of Impact Conference’. The event took place in Westminster on the day on which the draft Brexit agreement was revealed and so there were ministerial resignations in the air and crowds of media joining tourists outside Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament.

Impact is how we think about and measure what our funded research work means for ordinary people in our region. It looks at how a project makes life better in reduced incidence, treatment, years of life gained and quality of life.

The conference gave a number of insights which were useful for North West Cancer Research as we seek to invest in work which will advance our knowledge of cancer and how it develops in the body. So much of the work which the Charity invests in is early stage research – critical, but with a very long impact period. Projects which we are funding now could well bear fruit in 2040 or later – long after the word Brexit fades from the dictionary as a part of the zeitgeist. This makes measuring impact very challenging in an environment where funders want to see impact in a shorter time-frame.

On the day of the conference, delays to the trains meant that I arrived a few minutes after the first speaker had started talking. It took me a few minutes to tune into what was being said and how it was relevant to NWCR. However, it soon became clear that he was covering the development of research impact as we know it and how that is measured for the higher education sector in the UK.

At the moment, Universities such as the ones we fund in Liverpool, Lancaster and Bangor are assessed every few years on the impact of their work. The majority of this is measured through the number of academic papers developed from their work, alongside a small number of impact case-studies which show how the work has actually changed lives.

For North West Cancer Research, this is really two separate things.

• Research excellence - When we fund research we want it to be of an excellent standard. We want to know that the scientist carrying out the work is someone who has the experience and skills necessary to undertake the work to a high standard. We want to know that the work will be well planned and the experiments will be sufficient to prove or disprove the hypothesis. Well planned work, carried out to a high standard will result in academic papers which are published in a respected journal and which will then be influential on the work of others.

• Impact - As a Charity funded by people in our region, we also need to think very clearly about impact. We ask all of our research applicants to think about the impact which their work will have for the people in our region. This is an area which we need to keep getting better at following up. With such long impact periods it can be difficult to keep track of how our projects contribute to the understanding of and treatment of cancer, but this is essential if we are to successfully make our case that giving money to NWCR is important.

So as we continue to think about Brexit and what that means for Britain in March 2019, NWCR needs to keep a long-term eye on how our research is having an effect on cancer diagnosis and treatment. As the Charity remains vigilant over the next 20-30 years we need to be aware that every case of cancer will stop time for a family, and that every death from cancer is a tragedy for an individual. It is a reminder that we need to fund excellent work, but work which makes life better, reduces cancer incidence, provides better treatment, increases years and gives a better quality of life.