A New Approach: Funding through science and engineering sub-awards

Programmatic pathways offering direct funding for informal science education are not too abundant, and the total amount of funding they have to award to each year is quite modest compared to the much broader portfolios of funding programs available to universities and other scientific research organizations. That would be reason enough for ISEs to look for pathways of funding from “the other side of the aisle,” the science research side. However, add to that scarcity the fact that more and more ISEs and now other organizations are competing each year for that limited number of ISE awards. An ISE organization that submits one or more proposals to these programs each year is competing against other ISE organizations (and often with itself) for a piece of that modestly-sized pie. And, each proposal requires a significant investment of time and resources from the prospective organizations and their PIs in order to be competitive. The odds just aren’t good. About 650 pre-proposals were submitted to the NSF ISE program during 2010, and roughly half of these were to be invited for full proposals. According to current estimates, only about 25 of the invited full proposals will be given awards in 2011. Among the losers will be some very fine proposals.

Contrast this with the option of collaborating as an education outreach partner or a subawardee on a research center proposal. Each year, much larger chunks of federal funding are offered to fund basic research in university settings than are offered directly to informal science education institutions.

Research center grants tend to be quite large and can last five years or more, and they are often renewable: quite a healthy return on an investment in a partnership building. Because research center budgets are larger and more discretionary than individual investigator budgets, more resources may be available to engage with an education outreach partner, as a potential sub-awardee. This not only relieves the individual center investigators of the burden of each coming up with their own E&O plan, it also creates a critical mass of resources for generating higher-impact activities. If the E&O partner is a science museum, it is typically selected by geography and prior connections; there needn’t be the kind of fraternal competition between multiple ISE organizations as there are with direct ISE funding programs, for which there is a national playing field.

This is truly one of the greatest areas of untapped potential for enhancing programming and resources for the mission of the informal science education world. And here again, it is the National Science Foundation that offers the best opportunities.

Broader Impacts Criterion
The reason the NSF offers the best opportunities, as you may recall from Section One, “The Partnership Landscape,” is because of its Broader Impacts Criterion, the mandate that all proposals for research funding include explicit plans to make meaningful contributions in one or more of the following five areas:

(1) Advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning with innovative connections of research and education, including opportunities to involve undergraduate and high school students in research experiences and participate in the professional development of K-12 teachers.

(2) Broaden participation of underrepresented groups by involving their members in research and education activities at all levels in order to increase the pool of future talented educators and promising researchers.

(3) Enhance infrastructure for research and education by linking with scientists and programs to bring added value and enhance impacts of research activities. These can include advances in networking and cyber infrastructure in ways that give researchers new opportunities for collaboration, conducting research and education, and sharing their work.

(4) Broaden dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding, for instance, by working with science centers on new educational exhibits; assisting journalists with their stories on technical topics; developing new art forms for communicating materials research to wider audiences; creating related websites enhanced by engaging animations and movies to educate non-scientists and the public at large.

(5) Provide benefits to society by communicating to the public the excitement, benefits, and long term impacts of materials research and enhance public appreciation of the relevance of advanced materials research to the future and society.

Although areas 4 and 5 show the most obvious role for an informal science education partner, areas 1, 2, and 3 can also be addressed through such partnerships; for instance, many museums offer professional development programs for K-12 educators, and some museums offer science communication and inquiry-based education skills-building sessions for early-career researchers from partnering universities. Please refer back to the “Broader Impacts Criterion” discussion in Section one: The partnership landscape, to review how science museums can help university PIs address the BIC with the kind of rigor that NSF requires.

The Broader Impacts Criterion gives your ISE organization a leg up when you go out to recruit potential NSF research grantees.

Communicating Research to Public Audiences
The fifth category of NSF DRL ISE program grants, “Communicating Research to Public Audiences” (CRPA) is specifically dedicated to funding innovative partnerships between university researchers and ISE institutions. Currently, only about five of these are awarded each year, and what makes them unique is that a principal investigator who already holds an active NSF-funded research award in good standing must propose them. In other words, the proposal must come from the university-based science or engineering researcher. Nevertheless, NSF strongly encourages researchers to partner with an ISE organization: “Collaboration between NSF-funded researchers and informal science organizations is strongly encouraged to ensure use of best practices.”

Effective projects assist in the broader dissemination of research findings and promote STEM learning by the general public, especially as it relates to the understanding of and engagement with cutting edge research findings and methodology. As with other categories of ISE awards, CRPAs may include the design and implementation of exhibitions, films, television, radio, web, and youth and community projects. While these projects will be less extensive than Full-Scale Development projects, they should be similarly guided by a conceptual framework and include an evaluation plan that is commensurate with the scope and depth of the proposed activities. The proposal should clearly describe the NSF-funded research upon which the project is based, the educational need that is met, and the informal learning strategies that will be employed to engage the targeted public audiences. CRPA proposals can be a maximum of $150,000 and up to two years in duration. The award size, however, will be consistent with the project scope and the size of the original research award. They may be submitted at any time and do not require preliminary proposals. [Program Solicitation NSF 09-553].

So, even though a CRPA grant proposal has to be initiated from the research center side of the aisle, it’s specific purpose must be to fund informal science education and public engagement opportunities, for which it recommends recruiting an ISE partner. However, there is no reason that the idea for a CRPA project needs to originate with the researcher, and they may not even be aware of the opportunity. If your organization is locally connected with a researcher whose work would be a terrific focal point for a valuable ISE opportunity, you can always bring the idea to that individual and offer to help develop the concept and the grant proposal, allocating the funding appropriately.

NSF and some of the other federal science agencies offer researchers other types of direct and supplemental funding programs, for which partnerships with science museums can be especially useful and the museums included as sub-awardees. For instance the revised 2010 Program Solicitation for the Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship program (IGERT), an NSF-wide endeavor, says “all IGERT projects must now specify how students will receive training in communication of the substance and importance of research to nonscientist audiences. [NSF 10-523] This is a role some science centers can step in to join. For example, the Saint Louis Science Center has developed, with IGERT funding, a graduate student training program partnership with Washington University in St. Louis, underway since June 2005. The same type of partnership can be made in the case of a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) or Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program, hosted by a nearby college or university.

Finally, it should be noted that NSF is increasingly generating opportunities for cross-cutting collaborative proposals for networks, centers, and programs that bridge the worlds of research and formal and informal science education. It seems there is a very deliberate effort to stimulate innovative collaborations to advance research education and outreach. The Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISE Net) is one such example of a very large award going to a collaborative effort among science museums and research organizations, with funding from several NSF science and engineering research directorates, though administered through the ISE program. In 2010, NSF launched a large Climate Change Education Partnership Program, which is similarly designed to encourage a network of partnerships between climate change researchers, educators, and formal and informal science education practitioners. We can expect to see more of these center and network style partnership programs in the future. Those science museums that have already begun to develop relationships with research centers will no doubt be better prepared to demonstrate competence and provide leadership in these areas.

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