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The occupational health funder that gives applicants considerable leeway

A highly valued funder in its field, the Colt Foundation supports research on the health, safety, comfort and wellbeing of people at work, and the impacts of industrial activities and pollutants on public health. 

The foundation does not specify the duration or cost of its Project Grants, which open twice a year (the next deadline is 22 August), leaving those parameters up to the researcher or clinician. It also does not specify the application format, which makes it more important that applicants set out their ideas logically and clearly, as Colt Foundation director Tash Heydon tells us.

How would you outline the Project Grants to someone who is unfamiliar?

The Colt Foundation has never had themed calls. We accept applications in any area of occupational and environmental health research. Calls are always open for anything within our area. Because we are so small compared with the big funders, we have always felt that it is not the foundation’s job to determine what researchers should investigate.

How much funding is available?

It varies. We avoid specifying duration and cost deliberately because we just expect it to be proportionate, well budgeted and justified. We have had Project Grants that are anywhere between six months and four years long. And [the amount] has been anything from £25,000 up to £300,000.

What is the success rate? 

Recently, it has not been brilliant. We are not like other funders as we will only fund if the quality of research is there. We will not say: ‘Right, we’ve got 10 applications and we’re going to fund five.’ At the moment, we are running at about a 25 per cent success rate.

Do you ever have rounds where nothing is funded?

We have never not funded, but we have, at times, really struggled to fund projects. But if we think that an application is nearly there, the team is really good and the project is really good, we will go back to applicants with suggestions on how they might improve it. We are a small organisation and can be a bit more flexible than bigger funders. We usually turn the call around within three months from deadline to decision.

Is there an overall pot of money that you work with?

We were endowed, so we have a big chunk of money that sits in listed investments. We spend annually from that, which is about £1 million a year on everything, but we have low overhead costs.

How do you assess the applications?

They come to me and I check for eligibility. Then I send them out for external peer review. After that, bids go back to the applicants to make any comments on the review, and then they are assessed at a board meeting by the trustees and scientific advisers.

What makes a bid stand out? 

Novelty, impact, value for money—a really good team and a good institution are what we’re looking for. Novelty and impact are the two really big things.

Can both researchers and clinicians apply?

Yes, and we are open to applications from all allied health professionals, not just from occupational health people. But they must be researching occupational health.

What mistakes do applicants make that should be avoided?

We don’t have application forms; we ask people to write 3,000 words on their project. The thing that reviewers comment on the most is how badly written applications can be. Bids must be well written to succeed; badly written ones just get chucked out, even if it is a good team and a good piece of research. We recently did that on a bid where we told the team involved that the application was too rushed. The board was pretty angry, in fact, that they were wasting their time and ours, but they were allowed to rewrite it and reapply at the next round.

Well-written applications are vitally important. As much as anything, it is about the researchers or clinicians really being able to understand their own research. If it is not well written then you have to question if they really understand what it is that they are trying to address, or if it is someone else’s idea that they have been given to run with.

You are a specialist funder, but is accessibility important?

Yes. Not everyone round the table is scientific, or in that specific area. You might have a scientist, a medic or a layperson having to understand what is being discussed. Generally, the lay summaries are pretty well written as people seem to be aware of how important they are. 

What advice do you have for first-time applicants?

Stick within our remit. Occupational environmental health has to be at the centre of the application. It cannot be a case of let’s make it fit. If in doubt, send me a one-page sketch of the project, or phone me to discuss. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com