Federal Coach: Top NCI official Dinah Singer on the moonshot fight against cancer

Tom Fox speaks with Dinah Singer, the acting deputy director of the National Cancer Institute and director of its Division of Cancer Biology, about the challenge to speed-up cancer research, the progress being made and her views on managing scientists.

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Dinah Singer is the acting deputy director of the National Cancer Institute and director of its Division of Cancer Biology. Singer co-chaired a blue ribbon panel that provided recommendations to help scientists meet the goals of the National Cancer Moonshot, an Obama administration initiative to accelerate cures for cancer. In December, Congress approved $4.8 billion in funding over the next 10 years for the National Institutes of Health to invest in research for cancer and other diseases. In a conversation with Tom Fox, Singer discussed the challenge to speed-up cancer research, the progress being made and her views on managing scientists. Fox is a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your view on the moonshot challenge to make a decade of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and care during the next five years?

The cancer moonshot is really shining a laser light on our research opportunities and especially those that are poised to be accelerated. It has served to bring the community together to clearly identify and articulate the research opportunities that we could advance and achieve in five years that would normally take a decade. My view of this goal is that it is ambitious, but achievable.

How would you describe the state of cancer research today?

We have made remarkable progress during the past 10 years in understanding what makes a cancer cell, the mutations that give rise to it and how those mutations affect the proliferation, growth and metabolism of the cancer. Now we’re moving to understand not just the cancer cell itself, but the tumor within which it is growing. We are focusing much more on the immune cells in the tumor, how are they inhibited from rejecting the tumor and how some of them help promote the tumor growth. We are looking how non-immune cells in the tumor work together. All of this is necessary to help us understand what makes a tumor grow and what allows some of the tumor to break off and spread. We are really on the cusp of amazing new discoveries. Everything seems to be coming together to help us understand cancer and its evolution.

What has been your role so far in the cancer moonshot initiative?

I was one of the leaders of a blue ribbon panel that served to advise the National Cancer Institute on future directions that we might want to take. The panel had 28 members who spanned the spectrum of the cancer community. Our responsibility was to take a look at the landscape of what’s going on in cancer research and identify those areas that could really be accelerated. I was acting as a scientist to help lead the scientific discussion and focusing them to be able to achieve this very aggressive timeline. Everybody just rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. It really was an incredible collaborative effort. The panel generated 13 recommendations. So the formal work of the blue ribbon panel is finished.

What are your biggest leadership challenges at the NCI?

My challenge is communication. We struggle with this all time. How do we maintain knowledge across the entire institute? We are so large and really keeping up with what every scientist and every division is doing is a challenge, and it’s something we actively work on. We have a number of ways that we try to overcome that, but to me the biggest challenge is to make sure that everyone knows pretty much what everyone else is doing so that the appropriate people are included in discussions as we develop new initiatives.

Could you describe your approach to leadership?

The people I work with are either scientists or highly knowledgeable administrators. Whether they are in leadership positions or not, they all have opinions that are valuable and that reflect their expertise and knowledge. The philosophy that I’ve developed is that even though we have an administrative hierarchy, when it comes to discussing the science or discussing where we’re going as in institute, I view everybody as being equal. I try to maintain the flat structure so that everybody participates. You can never fully develop consensus, but if everybody has been heard, whatever decisions are finally made, people will go along and be supportive. Maybe that’s called leading from behind as opposed to leading from in front. But I have found that to be more effective in the long run than trying to enforce a top down heavy-handed leadership style.

Have you made any mistakes that ended up shaping your approach to management?

The mistake that stands out is one that I made very early on. I learned that trying to optimize what’s best for the organization isn’t necessarily what’s best for the individuals. When we were establishing computer networks, there would have been a virtue to the organization if everyone had the same computers and could do their work in the same way. When I tried to suggest that to the scientists, there was a huge pushback. I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. People work differently and they think differently. Some people are more comfortable with Macs and some people are more comfortable with PCs.  It was almost a religious difference. I learned that you can’t impose from the top down and be effective. And you can’t impose organizational needs on your community without really talking it through and getting consensus and giving everybody a chance to have their voice.

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