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Opportunity profile: Looking ahead in vision research

 Image: PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou, via Getty Images

Fight for Sight has refocused its Small Grants on early career researchers and patient benefit

Top tips

  • Be clear on the path forwards for your research upon completion of the Small Grant.
  • Make sure you have a strong team around you.
  • Even for lab-based projects, try to involve patients.
  • Consult the guidance carefully and read the charity’s updated research strategy.

Fight for Sight is the UK’s leading specialist vision research charity, and its Small Grants have helped spur research ideas and careers for many years.

The grants are intended for applicants to collect preliminary data to bolster subsequent bids for larger follow-on funding in vision research. They open annually and provide up to £15,000 for projects of up to one year. The deadline for this year’s competition is 24 July.

The charity runs its Small Grants with highlight notices jointly supported by other charities. Participating in the current round are the Azoor Society (for acute zonal occult outer retinopathy research), the British and Irish Orthoptic Society, the Birdshot Uveitis Society, the Bowman Club, Debra (for epidermolysis bullosa research), Glaucoma UK, the Thyroid Eye Disease Charitable Trust and Versus Arthritis. Fight for Sight also welcomes submissions that fall within its remit alone.

Grants manager Steven Smith explains how the Small Grants work and what applicants can do to give their bids the best chance of success.

We last spoke with Fight for Sight in 2019, what changes have there been since then?

Fight for Sight has since merged with the Vision Foundation. The Vision Foundation was a London-based charity interested in social change, and therefor focused on the actual benefits to people with visual impairments. As a result, we now fund work concerned with how we can use research to benefit outcomes for patients and improve quality of life.

How else has this affected the research you fund?

The research we fund remains mostly within what might be called discovery science—so before the translational stage—but nonetheless now takes into greater consideration the rest of the pipeline. Lots of our projects, including the Small Grants, are focused on how to move ‘blue sky’ ideas into de-risked situations, so they can be taken forward and have a benefit for patients.

We’ve just released our new five-year research strategy—it’s on our website and I highly recommend people have a look at it before applying. The framework we now use very much follows the patient pathway.

Has it affected who you fund?

The charity is increasingly interested in capacity building, and this is particularly true regarding the Small Grants, which have changed focus to become more supportive of people earlier in their careers.

How do you define early career, and do you still accept Small Grants bids from more senior researchers?

Our definition of an early career researcher aligns closely with the Medical Research Council’s—it is given in full on our website. 

We are happy for more senior researchers to apply with rare-disease projects, but they must justify doing so, and that justification will be scrutinised. My personal advice to senior researchers is to ask whether they could put forward an early career researcher from their lab to lead on the project, to try and encourage that next generation. There’s nothing stopping the more senior researcher being a collaborator or co-applicant.

How do the joint grants with partner charities work in practice?

Our partner organisations match-fund the amount that we put in—so it’s half and half. From the point of view of the applicant, there’s a drop down-menu on the application form, where they should specify which partner call they are applying to. If they don’t specify, and we notice a bid is aligned with one of the joint calls, we may get in touch and ask if they don’t mind us sharing the application with the partner. All applicants to the partner calls should keep in mind the need to meet the remit of the relevant partner as well as our own. However, the remits tend to be fairly broad.

How many Small Grants do you tend to award?

This information is now on our website. Last year—2023-24—our success rate was 63 per cent and we awarded roughly a dozen Small Grants. But for each round it’s dependent on the quality and number of applications.

We do set a potential budget in advance and we would like to award one grant in each partnership, and at least a couple of our own. If you are applying for a grant in partnership with one of our partners and they can only support one, you’re not disadvantaged, because you will still be compared across the whole scheme. Sometimes, if the quality is there and if both partners can agree, we will fund multiple partnership grants when we’d expected to only fund one.

Are there any eligibility criteria you’d like to flag up?

The topline advice for this would be to check on the website where we do have a very detailed guidance section that sets out the remit and eligibility, also bearing in mind that some partners have different allowances to others. Our grants team also welcomes any queries. We often get questions from PhD students, who want to apply while they’re still completing their PhD. Our usual guidance is that you need to already have your PhD, and such people are often advised to hold fire for that round. However with good support from a mentor or institution, then a degree of flexibility may come into play.

In terms of costs, are there any potential eligibility issues?

With Small Grants now focusing on early careers, we do get questions about the salary. But with £15,000 you’re not likely to be covering a postdoc’s yearly salary. The intention is that the money is used to get the consumables and perhaps additional temporary support—maybe a statistician or technician on a couple of hours a week for a couple of months.

Beyond excellent science, what other characteristics will a strong Small Grant application have?

The clearest thing that I can advise applicants here relates to the path of progression for the research—knowing exactly what the desired Small Grant outcome is which will build towards a follow-on application. You’re in a good place if you know that, for example, you’re ultimately aiming for a project grant and you’ve got, say, two different models that you could use in that grant but you don’t know which is better. You want to use your Small Grant to resolve that issue, and you express that clearly.

What frequent mistakes crop up on bids?

One recurrent weakness, especially for applications that involve our partner charities, is a lack of a multidisciplinary approach, failing to identify collaborators of potential partners. It’s vital that applicants have the right support team around them. Therefore, I’d advise careful consideration of who’s involved in the project and why. A multidisciplinary team with relevant experience will always be pleasing from a funder’s perspective. This definitely applies to those who are new to vision research; it would be very hard to move into a field without the support of someone who knows it intimately.

Do you accept bids that put engineering and physical sciences upfront?

Yes, and there are examples in our portfolio that do so, especially in corneal research. We would certainly encourage bids from those fields where appropriate, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence, if that can unlock discoveries.

What are your requirements for patient participation and involvement and engagement (PPIE)?

PPIE is a genuine focus for the charity and applications are very strongly encouraged to include meaningful PPIE. For laboratory research we know that will be harder than in a pilot study working with a handful of patients. But even if, for example, you’re doing fundamental research for a potential gene therapy, you should consider how that may affect patients, perhaps taking into account the delivery mechanism. Any patient input that can help shape that thinking early on would be advisable.

If your university has links to a National Institute for Health and Care Research Support Service, then we would advise consulting with them. We know this might be considered as extra work, but it is never acceptable to say that PPIE is just ‘not applicable’ to a bid. There must be some form of consideration of the patient perspective.

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