The typical approach: Funding from the informal science education side

All of the usual sources of grant funding for science museums and other informal science organizations welcome proposals that show strong collaboration with a university-based science and engineering research partner. These include foundations, private donors, and federal agencies that have specific programs that solicit and review proposals for public engagement and informal science education activities and research. Here are some of the major federal sources of funding for ISE:

National Science Foundation
The most robust of the informal science education funding programs is the National Science Foundation’s ISE program, administered by the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL). As the division title indicates, this program is focused on exploring, analyzing, and advancing knowledge of effective approaches to enhance both formal and informal science learning. Proposals must include a well-integrated and rigorous research and evaluation component. The point here is that the investment is meant to advance the field as a whole; not simply serve local needs:

The ISE program invests in projects that promote lifelong learning of STEM in a wide variety of informal settings. Funding is provided for projects that advance understanding of informal STEM learning, that develop and implement innovative strategies and resources for informal STEM education, and that build the national professional capacity for research, development, and practice in the field.

There are five categories of ISE program grants: Research; Pathways; Full-Scale Development; Broad Implementation; and Communicating Research to Public Audiences. All but one of these welcome proposals from ISE institutions including museums, community and media organizations, as well as from research institutions, including universities and private education organizations. The “Communicating Research to Public Audiences” category, or CRPA, accepts only proposals from scientists who have already been awarded NSF funding for their research.

The DRL’s Informal Science Education program is the nation’s premier funding program focused on informal science education, and the annual funding cycle is fiercely competitive, even more so now that the program has expanded to include university-based informal science education research. Pre-proposals must be submitted more than a year in advance of the proposed work, fitting into one of the five distinct categories. While awards for full-scale development can go as high as $3 million over five years, the other four categories have more limited ceilings, and in all likelihood, only about 25 full proposals can receive funding in any given year, at present appropriation levels. [The program page can be found online at:]

The National Institutes of Health
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has one significant program that specifically supports informal science education learning and research alongside K-12 and university STEM learning and research. This is the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), awarded annually by the Division for Clinical Resources within NIH’s National Center for Research Resources (NCRR).

As the name implies, this program encourages partnerships between educators and health science researchers. Science museums are welcome to apply directly for support. These five-year awards include funding for development and dissemination of successful programs and exhibits and also require rigorous research and evaluation components. SEPA “is designed to improve life science literacy throughout the nation through innovative educational programs.”

SEPA-supported projects create partnerships among biomedical and clinical researchers and K-12 teachers and schools, museums and science centers, media experts, and other educational organizations. Working together, these partners provide educational resources such as classroom curricula, mobile laboratories, workshops, films, software and Web sites that give K-12 students, teachers and the public a better understanding of the life sciences. Science centers and museums across the country use SEPA funding to develop stationary and traveling exhibits on fundamental biology and related topics. SEPA support also provides researchers who study human disease a vehicle for contributing to science education programs by sharing their knowledge and demonstrating the excitement of carrying out health-related research.

– From the SEPA program solicitation

This is a smaller ISE program than the NSF offers, and the funding allowed for it tends to vary more from year to year, sometimes skipping a year, as in 2010. However, since 2000, SEPA funding has supported the development of numerous science museum exhibits and programs on areas of current research in health science, all of them based on collaborations with university-based research partners. The SEPA website is found at

Other Federal Science Funding Agencies

The National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) also offer programs from time to time in support of informal science education efforts.

NASA has a variety of active programs encouraging what it calls EP/O, or Education and Public Outreach, and has had a genuine interest for a long time in collaborations between research centers, schools and science museums. NASA also sometimes funds and distributes science museum programs and exhibits and has supported the organization of ISE networks addressing particular topics, such as solar research, the Space Shuttle program, the International Space Station, and the Mars exploration program. Find the NASA Informal Science web portal at

NOAA has become more active in formal and informal science education programs in recent years and has funded collaborations between research institutions and museums and aquaria. Check on NOAA’s Office of Education webpages at

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