NWA-ORC insights… Part 1: the Breakthrough

In NWA-ORC the ‘breakthrough’ is introduced as the key aspect of this programme. Projects are supposed to include potential breakthroughs, be it societal ‘and/or’ scientific. What exactly is meant with this? And what does ‘and/or’ imply? Since we’re only in the second year of the programme not much can be said with certainty, but I’ll give it my best try to explain here.

Breakthrough hand through wall

Potential breakthrough

It’s not like Dr. Fleming wrote a detailed five-year project proposal upfront on making the breakthrough invention of penicillin. Like many other breakthroughs in science, his accidental discovery stemmed from a failed experiment testing another hypothesis.  

A breakthrough is an important discovery or event that helps to improve a situation or provide an answer to a problem. From that point onwards, things in that area will never be the same again; the breakthrough means the start of a lasting change. Sometimes breakthroughs are anticipated upon, sometimes they are perceived as a surprise.

Meanwhile, Fleming published his findings in June 1929 with only a passing reference to penicillin’s potential therapeutic benefits. At this stage it looked as if its main application would be in isolating bacteria in a mixed culture. 

From initial recognition to breakthrough

It was Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and their colleagues at Oxford University who turned penicillin from a laboratory curiosity into a life-saving drug. It seems that the NWA-ORC programme targets this stage of research and development. The stage between the initial recognition and realising the potential and creating a breakthrough in science and, if the discovery is as impactful as the discovery of penicillin, also in society. 

The Perfect Match

To sum up what seems to be a perfect match for a NWA-ORC grant:

  • There is a problem or problematic situation or trend that has been there for a while and the mainstream opinion acknowledges this particular problem.
  • While there are several (groups of) scientists around the world working on a solution, it isn’t there yet.
  • You have reason to believe that your hypothesis points towards the solution for (part of) the particular problem.
  • More research is needed to prove this.
  • If you really digged up gold for this project, you could really work towards a solution with some further research and/or development.
  • In order to make this happen you need expertise and experience from collaborative partners.

A brainstorm session about breakthroughs

You may find it difficult to think of your own project in this way, finding the balance between overpromise and undersell. Feel free to plan in a brainstorm session with us, perhaps we can help!

Stay tuned for part 2 in this series: the knowledge chain

Author: Linde van Ittersum

Co-founder and Research Funding Professional at Fundament.

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