Professor in epidemiology - Michel Coleman

Career background


BA (Hons) Animal Physiology, Oxford

BM BCh (Medicine and Surgery), Oxford

MSc Epidemiology, London

Member of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine UK

Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health


1995 to present - Professor of Epidemiology and Vital Statistics and Honorary Consultant in Public Health Medicine, Cancer Division, University College London Hospitals.

1998 to 2003 - Head of Cancer and Public Health Unit, LSHTM.

1995 to 2004 - Deputy Chief Medical Statistician, Office for National Statistics.

1991 to 1995 - Medical Director, Thames Cancer Registry and Honorary Senior Lecturer, Institute of Cancer Research.

1987 to 1991 - Staff Epidemiologist, Descriptive Epidemiology Programme, WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer. 

Cancer Epidemiologist, ICRF Cancer Epidemiology Unit, Oxford. 

1984 to 1987 - Honorary Senior Registrar in Public Health, Oxford RHA.

Clinical Lecturer in Epidemiology, St Mary’s Hospital Medical School.

Clinical Research Fellow, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The application process

How do you decide which grants to apply for?

  • Topic area;
  • Chances of success, set against the commitment of time and resources required to make an application - especially if it is a two-stage process;
  • Whether the grant would support existing staff to move on, or enable recruitment of talented early-career researchers.

What are the most time-consuming steps in submitting a grant?

Filling out ever-longer synopses of what we plan to do over three to five years, when everyone knows the world moves on and what you propose will be over-written by events or methodological developments on that timescale - see interview with Clifton Leaf about his new book "Retooling the war on cancer".

How do you deal with complex things, like costings and ethical approval?

Costings: Cajole, wheedle, persuade, commit crime, do whatever it takes to get hold of someone who eats that kind of stuff for breakfast. I did not get into cancer research to become a whizz at finance and administration. I have been blessed with staff who are brilliant at that, and I freely admit it would be impossible to manage our workload without them. Yes, I had to do it all myself as a junior researcher applying for my first grants - but I have always tried to include costing for administrative support. Success is like adding an accelerator to future work because you can devote more of your time to research.

Ethical approval: Don't get me started. Ethical (and other) approvals are absolutely necessary to ensure both independent external oversight and public acceptability of any research with human subjects, whether that be trials or observational research - but the current system of approval to collect primary data or obtain access to such data for secondary analysis is excessively complicated, leading to long delays.

Advice on applying for funding

  • Never take no for an answer - it is almost always wrong, often embarrassingly so.
  • Never forget the ultimate purpose of cancer research - to reduce or eliminate the burden of this disease on society. If that is not really the reason why you came into cancer research, go and find something else to do. And if it truly is the reason, you will find the research career an unending and inspiring challenge, however tough it is on any given day.

The research 

Getting feedback from colleagues on your research proposal

Always get feedback. And do it as early as you can. For our current application to renew a five-year programme grant (June deadline), we convened a meeting of our Advisory Panel in February and walked them through every aspect over two days. The discussions were illuminating and will undoubtedly improve the final submission. Early-career researchers cannot do that, obviously, but my message is that no-one is too experienced to fail, and everyone can benefit from advice sought from informed but friendly critics, including your mate in the next room. The tougher they are on you, the easier will be your passage to approval of your application.

Pitfalls and advice

Don't exaggerate, whether that be the importance of your research, the chance of success or the budget.

Anything I wished I'd done better? Where to begin?

  • Engineered US-level resources for European-quality research.
  • Persuaded Cancer Research Campaign (fore-runner of CRUK) of the importance of population-based observational research based on data from cancer registries. We might not be facing the current crisis arising from care data and opt-outs from data collection if they had supported statutory cancer registration in 2000-01 when there was a real prospect of success.
  • Been less inflammatory - maybe. Not sure that making your point quietly is more effective. Passion is important. Apart from my mistakes, I regret nothing

Advice as a committee member

I have occasionally sat on grant-awarding committees. I have often been a referee evaluating grant applications for small projects, programmes or research centres, both in the UK and elsewhere.

  • A good application is one that grabs my attention in the core scientific proposal. The rest is secondary and the budget comes last.
  • Both the ideas and the research questions need to be sharp and persuasive. The application needs to be clear, concise, well written (in whichever language), thoroughly thought through, logically structured, neatly organised and well referenced.
  • Figures and tables are fine if they genuinely illuminate the proposal.

Anything that fails on these criteria will struggle for my approval!


Find out more about this scheme

Michel's advice as a committee member

"A good application is one that grabs my attention in the core scientific proposal. The rest is secondary and the budget comes last."

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