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Cancer Moonshot Scholars: Tapping a Deep Pool of Talent

, by NCI Acting Director Dr. Douglas R. Lowy and CRCHD Director Dr. Sanya A. Springfield

NCI Acting Director Dr. Lowy and Director of NCI's Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities Dr. Sanya Springfield

Credit: National Cancer Institute

The Cancer Moonshot Scholars program aims to advance cancer science while also diversifying the pool of researchers and the approaches to cancer research that NCI funds. In this edition of the NCI Bottom Line blog, Drs. Lowy and Springfield provide details on the innovative program and encourage eligible Early-Stage Investigators to apply to become a Cancer Moonshot Scholar. The funding opportunity announcement is now published, and the first application due date is November 8, 2022.

In February 2022, from the East Room of the White House, with the support of cancer patients, clinicians, advocates, leaders of the House and Senate, and experts in cancer research from across the United States, President Biden announced plans “to supercharge the Cancer Moonshot℠ as a central effort of the Biden-Harris administration."

In his remarks, the President announced a series of bold, achievable goals: cutting cancer deaths in half within 25 years, reducing cancer health disparities while addressing the needs of underserved patients, and ending cancer as we know it today. President Biden also announced the formation of a Cancer Cabinet, with representatives from 24 federal agencies, including NCI.

In a fact sheet announcing decisions from the first meeting of the Cancer Cabinet, the Biden-Harris administration committed to establishing a Cancer Moonshot Scholars program “to inspire and support the next generation of world-class and diverse scientists and health innovators.” Cancer Moonshot Scholars will focus their research careers on “breakthroughs that will make a difference for patients and drive progress toward the goal of ending cancer as we know it today.” 

At the June joint meeting of the NCI Board of Scientific Advisors and the National Cancer Advisory Board, NCI leaders set forth their vision for the Cancer Moonshot Scholars program. We’d like to take this opportunity to provide details on this innovative program and encourage eligible scientists to apply to become Cancer Moonshot Scholars. 

A clear case for Cancer Moonshot Scholars

We know from studies and from personal experience that the biomedical research workforce is at its best when it benefits from the full spectrum of the nation’s skills, talents, and viewpoints. In cancer research and cancer care, we also understand that involving individuals with diverse perspectives is essential to reach underserved communities and reduce cancer health disparities. 

Unfortunately, despite the contributions of a range of diversity-focused programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and throughout biomedical research, some groups remain underrepresented in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. For example, individuals of African American, Native American, Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, and Pacific Islander descent are underrepresented in academic scientific careers. This underrepresentation also exists among scientists receiving grant awards for cancer research and within the leadership of academic institutions.

While NCI has long been committed to workforce diversity, there remains a stark, disproportionate gap in NCI R01 grants received by individuals from underrepresented groups. Our new program is one NCI effort to help close this gap. 

NCI designed the Cancer Moonshot Scholars program to advance cancer science, while also diversifying the pool of researchers and the approaches to cancer research that NCI funds. NCI seeks to diversify the R01 portfolio by increasing the number of applications submitted by Early-Stage Investigators (ESIs) from diverse backgrounds. For details about ESIs, please see the NIH Early-Stage Investigator Policies. Investigators from diverse backgrounds, including those from underrepresented groups (see NOT-OD-20-031), are especially encouraged to work with their institutions to apply.

The program is aligned with initiatives such as NCI’s Equity and Inclusion Program and NIH’s UNITE Initiative. Within NCI, the Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities will lead the Cancer Moonshot Scholars program, with regular input from a trans-NCI steering committee. NCI divisions that have subject matter expertise will manage the individual grant awards.

The Cancer Moonshot Scholars program builds on existing NCI workforce programs such as the flagship Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) program. CURE is NCI’s highly successful national research training and career development program focused on building and sustaining a pipeline of cancer research trainees and investigators from diverse backgrounds. For three decades, CURE has supported students, researchers, and ESIs through a continuum of funding mechanisms, including research supplements, predoctoral fellowships, and career development awards that span from middle school to first academic appointment.

In addition to CURE, the recently established Early Investigator Advancement Program (EIAP) supports the professional and career development of a cohort of ESIs and new investigators by guiding them through the R01 grant application process. As established NCI programs, CURE and EIAP are building a ready pool of ESIs who also may aspire to become Cancer Moonshot Scholars. 

As we hope these efforts make clear, closing the R01 funding gap experienced by researchers from underrepresented groups is a core NCI priority. It’s a priority broadly shared across NCI, thanks to the leadership of NCI’s Equity and Inclusion Program and all those at NCI who have championed innovative programs to address these issues.

The bottom line: NCI has issued the funding opportunity announcement for the Cancer Moonshot Scholars program and is accepting applications until November 8, 2022. We encourage you to share the announcement with your colleagues and professional networks and, if eligible, to apply. The program will accept applications again in June 2023 and February 2024. NCI expects to fund about 45 new R01s during the next 3 years, so we hope to see a robust response to this exciting new program. As always, funding for our programs is subject to the appropriations NCI receives. 

Please stay abreast of announcements and updates on the Cancer Moonshot Scholars program. Visit the program web page, follow NCI and the Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities on Twitter, and subscribe to emails from the NCI Equity and Inclusion Program.


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