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Provocative Questions

During the past year and a half, recognizing that most good research begins with a good question, NCI has brought together diverse groups of researchers—many who have never met before—to propose, craft, and debate what they consider to be the critical questions in cancer research. Questions that are outside the usual sphere of focus and that could lead to important discoveries are the basis of NCI’s Provocative Questions initiative.

NCI launched the initiative late in 2010, seeking to go beyond the questions that are self-evident or that have been studied for many years. We asked investigators to propose intriguing questions that need attention but might not otherwise get it or that have stumped us in the past but may be answered by new technologies. The initiative, which elicited a strong and exciting response from the research community, has recently funded its first 56 investigators.

Seventeen workshops included clinical and translational investigators, basic scientists, behavioral researchers, epidemiologists, evolutionary biologists, drug developers, communications experts, and more. In every workshop, new and thought-provoking questions emerged. Researchers showed great enthusiasm for helping to set the agenda. To extend this exercise well beyond the relatively small number of people who could be invited to the workshops, NCI created an interactive website. Visitors to the website had the opportunity to learn more about the Provocative Questions initiative, review the recommendations of workshops already conducted, propose additional questions, and comment on questions proposed at workshops or on the website.

To initiate research focused on these 24 questions, NCI issued a request for applications and received more than 750 applications that were reviewed by panels assembled by NCI. Fifty-six applications totaling just under $21.5 million were funded. Because the Provocative Questions exercise intends to focus our attention largely on understudied areas, study sections were asked to judge the relative value of applications by considering the power of the ideas proposed to answer the questions, rather than by evaluating preliminary data or the reputation of an applicant. The initiative does not replace NCI’s longtime and essential emphasis on funding investigator-initiated research, but rather it represents a compromise between investigator-initiated projects and NCI-directed programs.

Reflecting the involvement of experts from many disciplines, the Provocative Questions cover numerous areas. The Provocative Questions initiative is an experiment in its own right, one that asks several questions about the research process. The first clear result is that the research community has responded.  Soon we will know whether the questions will incite “provocative results.” There’s more to learn, of course. How do we best use good questions to paint the landscape of what we know and what we want to know about cancer? Will interesting answers lead to sustained research programs that expand the pursuit of additional answers?

Related Links

Provocative Questions Project Website

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NCI Director Harold Varmus, M.D., discusses the Provocative Questions Project and urges researchers to tackle the "perplexing" questions in cancer research. For more information, visit