2: Building a partnership


Prologue: How NOT to initiate a partnership

Hello. My name is Professor ___.  I’m just calling from the ___ department at ____ university.  I was just hoping to get in touch with you today regarding this very large grant proposal that we’re putting together and actually submitting by the end of the day, based around [a particular research area], and one thing that was suggested and that would be great would be if we could establish some links with [your museum] If you can give me a call back, my number is _____.  I’ll be in and out of the office this morning, and I will also try to catch you again if that’s possible, and I look forward to speaking with you.  Thanks, bye.”   – [Phone message left on author’s voicemail, 2006]

The last minute phone-call
It is not unusual for science museum directors or staff to get phone calls from researchers who are about to submit a proposal for funding to a federal agency or foundation, inquiring whether the science museum might host a lecture or perhaps an exhibit to be designed by graduate students in connection with the proposed research.  Typically, the caller is requesting a letter of support on the museum’s letterhead, expressing enthusiasm for the proposed education outreach “partnership.”  Typically the deadline for the proposal, and the letter, will fall within a few days.  And, quite often, with few questions asked, a science museum representative will graciously respond to the request, and fax or email a PDF of a letter in time to meet the deadline.

Sound familiar?  I get many knowing nods when I mention this point in talks.  Kim Kiehl, Senior VP at COSI in Columbus Ohio, wrote “I was happy to see you mention the notorious last minute phone call.  We do not engage in these partnerships any longer unless they are paramount to our mission.”

[Share your stories of the last-minute phone calls in the Comment/Discuss area.]

What’s wrong with the last minute overture?  While these well-meaning callers should be given considerable credit for reaching out to partner with a science museum for help in reaching a larger audience, the last minute nature of the call makes it doubtful that much forethought has gone into the content or scope of the proposed effort, how it might fit into either organization’s mission, priorities, capacity, budgeting, and scheduling.  There has likely been no discussion of support for the science museum staff who will need to take time to help the researcher design an effective audience-centered approach, plan a way to integrate it into museum exhibits and programs, staff it, and publicize it; and, lastly but most importantly, little consideration for the needs of the intended audiences.  What is being suggested is not a true education outreach partnership; it is most likely a last-minute (though well-meaning) effort to show the funder that the proposal writer has given the recommended consideration to “broader impacts” or other education outreach requirements in the grant program solicitation.

Now, of course, if a museum already has a funded infrastructure in place and staff for handling incoming requests like these, and if the researcher and his or her students have great ideas and already understand your audiences and constraints; or, if the Museum has had good experiences in the past working with this investigator, then perhaps this approach may be salvaged; but often such ad hoc initiatives produce mediocre results and experiences. These sorts of last minute requests, however well-meaning, show little respect for the intended partner, the intended audiences, or the intentions of the funder in requiring a rigorous and soundly-vetted plan for education outreach as part of a research funding solicitation.

Why does this happen?
It’s not difficult to understand why these last-minute calls are so prevalent. Nearly all of us work to deadlines and succumb to procrastination, and, indeed, for most university researchers, education outreach is truly lower down on the priority list. Grant writing is difficult and stressful for everyone, and there are always numerous bureaucratic hurdles to manage.  Also, scientists and engineers tend to approach the world with a “can do” attitude; they’re smart, they have good imaginations, they’re familiar with working with tools, and they may assume that if they put their minds and the minds of their graduate students to it, they can build an exhibit or design a program at least as good as any other in a science museum, so it makes sense to them that they will just do the work, develop the talk, build the exhibit, and just “donate it” to the museum.  It ma be that they simply are not aware of the multiple layers of expertise, design, testing and evaluation that go into making a successful informal science education product or experience.  Or, it may be that they assume that the museum already has plenty of funded staff available with time on their hands to undertake these new projects or to manage their volunteers, and so a budget and pre-planning is not essential.  Or, it could be that they assume that, once their grant comes in, largely on the basis of its intellectual merit, there will then be plenty of time to work out “the details” of the education outreach.

Science museums have a tough time just saying “no.” We like the idea of working with researchers, appreciate their enthusiasm, want to build a relationship, and want to go along with the plan.  It doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  We have taken the call, accepted the request, written the letter, delegated the responsibilities, and then, when the next researcher calls for the next proposal, we do it all over again, even if the partner forgot to inform us about the outcome of the last proposal for which they contacted us at the last minute.  We know this is not good management policy nor good business practice. It can be hard on the museum managers and line staff who will need to follow through with the partner; it can be frustrating to trustees and senior management who are involved in setting institutional priorities, and it can raise fairness issues with other institutional partners who have worked collaboratively with the museum and developed resources and monetary support for other agendas.  But it’s biggest fault is that it’s simply not a good way to take the needs and considerations of our audiences into account.

On both sides, there is a tendency to ignore the real costs in staff time, expertise, materials, infrastructure, and marketing that go into making successful programs and exhibits and education outreach events.  Many people assume these costs are already covered in some other way.  For instance, many people think that science museums receive government support; whereas, Smithsonian aside, most of them rely heavily on admission fees, concessions, and private donor support.  Like schools, education outreach can’t run on bake sales.

What can we do about it? We could just say no.  That’s a bit harsh though, and we don’t want to lose the good will of the researcher who, after all, has at least given consideration to an education outreach plan, and has reached out to the museum.

Alternatively, we could thank the caller for thinking of our museum, gently explain the dilemma their request raises for us, ask whether they have set aside any budgetary support for education outreach, urge them to think of calling us – the next time – earlier in the process so that we can collaborate on a meaningful education outreach plan, and we can offer to write a letter saying that we will be happy to meet with them if their proposal is approved, to develop some appropriate education outreach – provided a way is found to support the cost of it.  This approach is both supportive and truthful, and it could help the prospective partner resolve to contact the museum earlier the next time around and show a bit more respect for the quality of the public engagement experience, and, if it is an NSF grant, for the broader impacts mission.

If the museum instead provides a letter gushing with support, we risk not only misrepresenting our institution and our audiences and encouraging similar approaches in the future, but we also indicate to the program officers and peer reviewers of this research funding program that we agree that this is a legitimate approach to education and outreach.  It is not.  We need to gently educate our colleagues in research, as well as in the funding agency domain.

We can be proactive in other ways.  We can stay in touch with the researchers who make these requests, and send them occasional notes to remind them that we are available to talk about education outreach activities associated with potential grants they may be pursuing; earlier better than later.  We can try to create stronger relationships with the research departments of local universities, to help make them aware of what we can provide and whom they should contact and what kind of advance notice we will need. We can also develop institutional policies for handling incoming “letter of support” requests that can help us respectfully demur when that is what we need to do.  These policies can include standards and schedules for internal review of external requests.  Of course, such institutional policies live to be broken, but only when there is something so compelling about the proposed opportunity that we can fully justify it to all involved.

A few words on the university perspective
Like research organizations, science museums also have times when they neglect to plan far enough in advance or fail to allocate sufficient resources for what is meant to be a collaborative effort.  We also need to train ourselves to be respectful and responsive partners, by, for instance, making sure we contact prospective research partners with sufficient notice and respect for the many demands on their time.  Some researchers I’ve spoken with have been disappointed by science museum partners who over-promise or whose commitments are challenged by other organizational priorities and timelines.   They can get frustrated by frequent staff turn-over and sometimes by the youth and inexperience of some staffers in understanding the university research environment and the sophisticated science they pursue.  The organizational structure of museums can be confusing, and it can be difficult to fathom who should be contacted and who has final say.  We’ve heard scientists say they’ve called and tried to find someone to talk to at a local science museum, and no one got back to them.  We science museum folks too must sharpen our game before we step onto the playing field.

The nature of partnerships

Now that we’ve provided counsel on some of the pitfalls we can encounter on our way to initiating partnerships, it’s time to provide some guidance on more promising ways to approach them.  First we’ll take a look at the nature of organizational partnerships.

Institutional collaborations can be challenging.   Each institution has its own culture, mission, personality, organizational structure, personnel policies, fiscal year, operational calendar, and priorities.  Each organization has characteristic ways of responding to changes in external conditions.  Staff turnover at any level can be a major factor.  Accountability issues between organizations can be difficult to adjudicate.

Not surprisingly, the health of institutional partnerships often rests on the strength and quality of the individual working relationships between the leadership and staff of the organizations involved.  If these are based on mutual respect, trust, and alignment with common goals, and individuals follow through on their commitments and communicate frequently, the partnership is off to a good start. It will become fertile ground for collaborative development of new ideas and approaches and may grow and expand into new areas.

While all strong partnerships are founded on mutually shared and recognized goals, they also need to advance important institutional goals for each of the participating organizations. Otherwise there will be little organizational back-up and buy-in for sustaining and prioritizing the collaborative work. These goals are not necessarily the same for each organization and the resources they require may not be of the same type.  As David Chesebrough, says,

Partnerships require resources – time, effort, management attention, and in some cases funds.  Depending on the situation, there may be more or less resources required in a partnership of each partner. These are generally balanced by the level of rewards coming back to each partner or their investment.

[Chesebrough, 1998]

In other words, unlike typical contractual fee-for-service arrangements, collaborations between non-profit organizations can include the bartering or back-and-forth exchange of a variety of asymmetrical forms of resources.  The resources can be quite different in nature, e.g. money, audiences, venues, expertise of various kinds, networks and connections, materials, and institutional standings. Such a diverse array can be quite difficult to sort out, assign value to, and budget for; however, mistakes in assessing these can lead to imbalances that threaten the health of the partnership. That is why we recommend approaching the development of partnerships with some amount of rigor.

Laying the groundwork for partnerships

It makes sense for science museums to take time to lay the internal institutional groundwork ahead of time, before the need arises to respond in a timely manner to external invitations to participate in partnerships, and also before taking a decision to actively recruit a partner with whom to build a partnership.

For science museum leaders, we think, the key to laying good groundwork is to remain focused on our organization’s central mission, and to build from that a framework for assessing the costs and benefits of potential partnerships before we pursue them.

If the mission of our museum is to help people of all ages appreciate and understand basic science and technology and be inspired to learn more, then the partnership we create should be designed to contribute to these goals. The focus should be on producing quality informal science education experiences for public and school audiences and on building greater capacity for achieving that goal. If we include in our mission the idea that we want our museum to also become an interpreter of new technologies and provide forums for adult deliberation on them, than our partnerships should reflect that choice.  Likewise for a host of different mission based priorities, regarding our target audiences, our exhibit development needs, relations with donors and sponsors, the relative importance to us of pursuing innovations important to the larger ISE field, our focus on children, are institutional ambience, or our pedagogical philosophies.

One can tell if a partnership plan is going astray if it begins to feel to either party like a work for hire, a funding requirement, a public relations scheme, a marriage of convenience, or an institutional necessity.  Anytime the scope of the project balloons beyond the budget and resources available, it is at risk for pulling its partners off their tether.  Partnerships need be nurtured with care, and to have clearly defined goals, plans of action, timelines, accountability, realistic budgets, the right people for the job, and buy in at the highest levels.  Simply put, they need to benefit the organizational partners and the intended audiences.

Proactive Assessment
It’s often helpful to conduct a proactive assessment to help our organization determine what kinds of partnership activities will best contribute to our institutional capacity to further our audience-based mission, while also meeting the needs of the partnering and funding organizations.  Undertaking such an exercise can not only help our organization gear up to target and recruit university partners and funders, but can also help us prepare for the inevitable last minute partnership offer calls that you will from time to time receive.

Here are some clusters of questions worth addressing in assessing the potential value of an education outreach partnership:

Who are our audiences and what would we like to offer them in the years to come?
•    What kinds of new content and subject areas will they find engaging and significant? Have we done conducted visitor studies to find out?
•    Would they appreciate efforts to keep them in touch with current research in science and the latest technologies on an ongoing basis?
•    Would they appreciate having more opportunities for face-to-face interactions with scientists in the museum?
•    How could school groups and teachers benefit?
•    Could the partnership help us attract new audiences or more diverse audiences?
•    Do we want to focus on new exhibits, new programs, or new content for existing programs?
•    Does our community have any particular circumstances that could be addressed through a university partnership, such as special community health needs or environmental issues, informed citizen deliberation on new municipal investments in energy production or conservation, a high high-school drop-out rate or the need for tech workforce training for laid-off factory workers?

Do we have existing staff, resources and infrastructure for working with university-based partners?
•    Do we already have an infrastructure in place for interpreting and presenting exhibit and programs on current science and technology?  If not, what will we need and what will it cost?
•    Under whose jurisdiction will the management of the program be assigned?  Who else will need to be consulted among stakeholders, management, and staff?
•    What are the scheduling, facility, and budgeting implications?
•    What synergisms might there be with other partners and other projects?
•    Do we need additional resources or financial help with an existing program or exhibit plan for which a particular partner might be ideally suited?
•    Is there a minimum commitment of resources or funding that we need to establish before we write a letter of commitment or support?

What might the partnership bring us that we don’t currently have enough of?
•    Will the partnership bring us exciting new science to share with our audiences and connections with interesting and enthusiastic researchers who may have inspiring stories to share?
•    Will it help us try out some innovations in our exhibits or programming?
•    Will it help us push our research and evaluation agenda forward, and possibly contribute valuable knowledge to the field through meetings and publications/
•    Will it help us reach some of our strategic goals – say for increasing our collaborations with local research centers, or for getting more involved with the academic community, or for reaching K-12 audiences?
•    Will it bring us the expertise we need in new STEM areas we’d like to address with or audiences?
•    What about onsite research?  Could our visitors benefit from that kind of participation, if we can conduct it along IRB-approved human subject guidelines?
•    Will it bring us volunteers who can interact successfully with our audiences?
•    Is there funding involved that will help us keep current programs going and help us develop new ones?
•    Will the funding come with a share of support for overhead costs that are increasing year by year?

What do our partners need and can we provide it?
There is no point in taking on a partnership commitment if we cannot provide what our partners really need, and we owe them an honest answer on this point. On the other hand, science museums that have decided they want to actively pursue partnerships with research centers would do well to perform another kind of proactive assessment:  What do we have to offer prospective partners.  That topic will be addressed in Section Three, when we tackle the idea of “marketing our services” to research organizations.

The take-home point of this section is that a little advance preparation can help us plan a collaboration that serves our audiences first and the educational mission foremost, that does not swing our organization out of its orbit of priorities, and that benefits all the stakeholders, while remaining within the means of the resources the funding provides.   By building an evaluation component into the plan, we can lay the groundwork for assessing the program’s success and for improving future collaborations.

Vetting an offer of partnership

Particularly in large museums and informal science education organizations, it is helpful to have a system in place for coordinating decisions on partnership proposals generated by other organizations, including university research groups, that will help guide these discussions in alignment with the proactive assessment we have conducted.

As we have seen, education outreach partnership offers can often arrive from researchers with little warning, and not necessarily to the staff member one would expect.  So, it is important to have a policy and procedure in place for receiving, analyzing and vetting partnership proposals.  Who will need to sign off on proposed partnerships and agreements?  What should the internal vetting processes entail?  How will the procedure differ for extremely short-notice proposals?  What minimum criteria should we try to maintain?

Have a structure in place for handling incoming partnership decisions
The larger and more complex the organization, the more internal stakeholders will likely require consultation when a new partnership offer arrives.  These may include managers whose staff will carry out the work and who will need to allocate time, resources, materials and scheduling. If the partnership will involve a contractual agreement with a federal funding agency, or with a lead organization, it will require the involvement of fiduciary and grants management officers.

Some museums set up standing committees and set internal review deadlines for grants and partnership proposals, with concomitant operational procedures. These can provide structures and standards for considering external proposals, but they can also reduce the organization’s ability to respond nimbly to compelling and potentially valuable joint-venture offers.  When the prospective partner is asking for a last-minute letter of support, with little opportunity left for collaborative planning and no specific resources or budgeting, the proposal can be relatively easy to take a pass on.  Such an approach from a potential partner can signal further problems down the road; the partner may prove generally unreliable, or lacking in collaborative planning and management skills.

However, when the prospective partner is sincere, and offering something that could be of real value to the museum and its audiences in alignment with the organizational mission and priorities, we are often motivated to lean over backwards to try to negotiate on the foreshortened timeline something that we think will work for all involved.  This is much easier to do if the potential partner is open to including adequate resources in the budget and possibly a sub-award or subcontract, although that means that a lot of administrative factors need to happen rather quickly, including consultation with the staff who would be involved, budgeting, and submission of proper forms.  Federal grant proposals are typically filed up to a year in advance of the proposed start date, and they can cover multiple years of effort beyond the start date if they are funded.  (Fortunately, in the post-award environment reasonable changes in work plans and budgets can usually be made by agreement of both parties and by the funding agency; however, there will not be an opportunity at that point to negotiate for more resources.).

Thus it is very helpful to have a plan in place for assessing and responding to proposals initiated from outside the institution.    Decide in advance who should be consulted, what questions should be answered and what priorities should guide the negotiations with the partner.  Have contingency plans for rapid responses.  Some museums have developed standardized forms for collecting and distributing necessary information to stakeholders.   These can include fields for gathering information the who, what, where, how, and how long of the proposed partnership, as well as specific information on funding agency, program, pre- and full proposal due dates, start and end dates, resources required (staff, space, equipment, evaluation, network support), and sign-offs from key stakeholders.

Negotiating a plan

Sometimes we find ourselves a bit stumped by the topic of the research project being proposed to us as an education outreach opportunity.  Scientists don’t get funding for “An introduction to nuclear physics;” they get funding for something much more specific, advanced, and esoteric sounding.  We may find ourselves embarrassed to admit that we don’t understand what they are talking about when they first describe the subject of their research.  Do not panic.  This is why they need us.  They don’t yet know how to describe their research in a way that reasonably intelligent people (we) can understand.  Carey Tisdale, an independent evaluation consultant, says the biggest thing getting in the way of science museum staff working with scientists is that we get intimidated too easily by their command of their subject area.  We need to “own our expertise,” she says; and have the confidence that – while they might be the experts in condensed matter theory – we are experts in understanding what it’s going to take to engage a lay audience.  [Tisdale 2010] We need to take a few deep breaths, and begin to ask the series of questions that will help us understand what their research is about: what is its underlying motivation?  why should we care?  what’s new that hasn’t been done before?  what do they think is cool about it?  what does this term mean – and that one…?   Being confident about our ISE expertise means that even if the scientist thinks they have the perfect way to communicate a particular concept to our audiences; if we are doubtful it will work, we need to be assertive about modifications and alternatives, and the reasons why we are suggesting them.  We may even need to gently insist that a much simpler, broader, more introductory approach to the entire subject area is probably in order, before we can hope to get into the nitty gritty details.  We may even suggest that we explore a wide range of approaches to the scientific quest, including the researcher’s own approach, so that we can provide the best context for communicating their research.  It’s our job, after all, to serve our audiences; to use our expertise to meet them where they are, and gently take their hand and guide them somewhere new.  And, in a sense, that is what we may also do with our prospective partners: listen to their ideas, ask many questions, and share our thoughts.  It could be that they are also coming to you with an idea already in their head about the exhibit that should be built, or the lecture that could be given.  And they may not realize what it truly takes to build a good exhibit or why the museum needs to stick to the unfolding of a particular exhibit plan for its galleries, or why a lecture may not fit into next season’s programmatic themes, or attract the kind of audience they might hope for.  These considerations can all be discussed and negotiated, and you can begin to enroll them in the skeleton of a plan that might work – for you, for them, and for the intended audiences.

The second part of negotiation is about the financial and resource support for these activities they will provide from their grant award, if it is funded.  Even if they’ve come to you late, and they’ve already allocated large chunks of the budget, and there’s no time to draw up a new budget, it is still important to insist on support commensurate with the scope, and for you to be able to include that agreed upon amount in the letter of support.  There is usually some give in a budget, at least enough to get a small partnership started.  Section 5: Getting a Grant has more detailed information on budgeting an education outreach initiative with a partner.

Preparing to meet the requirements of granting agencies
Smaller or newer institutions that have not had the benefit of much prior experience in applying for and managing federal grants can do additional groundwork to help prepare for that time when they are facing a proposal deadline in collaboration with a research institution proposal.  With advance preparation, they are more likely to be able to join the proposal as a fuller partner or subawardee.

In particular, they can designate a grants management staff person, register with federal granting agencies and obtain an institutional ID number, familiarize themselves with the rules and obligations of federal granting agencies, work through the process of establishing an Indirect Cost Rate (IDC), and either set up their own Institutional Review Board, or seek an agreement to occasionally call upon the services of the IRB of a local, sympathetic institution, such as a university.

Universities and some large science museums have designated grants management personnel responsible for fiscal reporting and financial and legal compliance. In universities and at federal funding agencies, the term often used is “sponsored research officer.” These administrators track the organization’s current and pending grant proposals and manage compliance, reporting and auditing requirements.  A large museum or university may have at any given time multiple proposals pending at various funding agencies, either as the designated lead organization or as a sub-awardee.   In small and medium-sized science museums, a member of the finance or accounting department can help shepherd the organization through the process.  Applicant organizations and prospective PIs may need to register with the granting agencies ahead of time. The organization must also go through a preliminary process with one of the federal agencies to establish their IDC or overhead rate.   We strongly urge museums to initiate this process if they have not already done so. Various government websites provide counsel on this process.

Institutional Review Boards
Research and evaluation (R&E) are increasingly important aspects of education and outreach (E&O), and grant program officers are looking for evidence that ISE and E&O programs incorporate R&E and use it to improve programs and to inform the field.   Any surveying, observing, testing, interviewing, or other forms of research and evaluation with adults and particularly children (minors 18 and under) are subject to approval by an Institutional Review Board. The purpose of the IRB is to ensure that all “human subjects” are clearly informed about their privacy rights, the sponsorship and eventual use of the data being collected, and of their right to decline to participate.  The sponsor of the research has to outline to the IRB the potential risks and benefits of the R&E plan, and any possible harm it might cause to an individual’s well-being.  The rules are stricter surrounding the participation of minors and require parent or guardian sign-off, and since science museums focus on serving children and teens, these requirements have real impact.  Most federal agencies now require proposals that include ISE R&E to have them put through an IRB screening process; however, since that process can take weeks, it is often enough to have obtained an IRB commitment to review the plan.  Obtaining that commitment can also take days or weeks, and so, having access to an IRB and understanding its process is just about essential for any science museum that wants to be prepared to join in a really good grant proposal opportunity.

Principles of good stewardship

In Section Two of this guide we have been exploring some essential characteristics of good partnerships and how science museums can best prepare themselves to respond to partnership opportunities.  In Section Three we will go over ways that museums can be more proactive in marketing themselves, recruiting potential partners, and developing grant proposals.  These final two chapters of Section Two will explore what it takes to manage and maintain healthy and rewarding partnerships.

Institutional partnerships require much of the same care and nourishment as other kinds of partnerships; they’re just more complex because they involve multiple personal and organizational agendas.

An essential aspect of laying the groundwork for new partnerships is gaining an understanding of some of the principles of effective stewardship, including partnership management and maintenance.  Some of these principles are little more than common sense, some of them are applicable to all kinds of partnerships, personal as well as organizational, and some of them come specifically from the author’s personal experience and from the experiences of many of her colleagues in carrying out science museum – research center collaborations.  We can also benefit from a variety of research and evaluation efforts have produced specific understandings of what tends to work and not work in science museum partnerships.  [Some of these are listed in the Resource section].  Our overall goal is to create a partnership which is able to effectively accomplish important goals that neither partner could accomplish on their own, and to do so within a collaborative atmosphere of trust, confidence, and creativity.

The partners are clear about their common goals and respective roles and about each other’s expectations. These expectations, as well as the project deliverables should be clearly defined in writing in order to keep a record and facilitate institutional memory in times of transition. Some grant-funded sub-award and collaborative projects are required to have these signed, sealed and delivered before funding begins.  Less formal partnerships can often benefit from drafting a Letter of Agreement (LOA) or a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the parties, even if no contract or financial commitment is on the table.  One of the reasons for these is to ensure that there is explicit “buy-in” at the highest level of each of the partnering organizations.  Since the actively engaged staff are often subject to higher level organizational priorities or changes due to turnover of personnel, it is important to ensure that partnership agreements will be respected and maintain continuity for the period of time for which they were established. Such agreements can help set the terms of the partnership, including the major goals and activities.  They can provide important scaffolding elements, such as a timeline and plan of action with recognizable milestones.  They should also include an explicit understanding of who will serve as the designated liaison on each side of the handshake.

The partners have designated liaisons. Research has shown that one of the biggest frustrations for partnering organizations occurs when there is confusion over who has authority to make decisions on each side and who should be the point person on collaborative efforts. In surveys of researchers who had worked with science museums, this issue came up frequently. [RK&A 2006.]  The designated liaisons should be named in the written documents and they should be updated if there is turnover.   Even when the financial and grants management managers need to confer directly over reporting and compliance issues, the designated liaisons should be included in the loop.

The designated institutional liaisons keep in touch regularly and feel free to pick up the phone or shoot each other emails if there are questions or concerns. Periodic face-to-face meetings with key players are probably the most important factor in maintaining healthy partnership relationships. Emails, phone conversations, collaborative wiki sites, and regular reporting can help maintain relationships and assist in their operations, but nothing beats face-to-face meetings in nurturing the kinds of bonds that lead to a true sense of collaboration.   Matching levels of connection is also important, in terms of responsibility, authority and experience.  It is not wise to have a volunteer coordinator fresh out of college be the liaison to a university PI.

The partners do what they say they are going to do. This is a no-brainer, but accountability is an essential part of the responsibility to one’s partner.  If circumstances force a change in plans, then the partner should be notified and consulted on alternatives.  Usually the partners also need to coordinate their compliance with funding agency and institutional requirements.  Typically, semi-annual or annual reports need to be put into a specific format and to go through a number of steps before publication and submittal. Partners should give each other plenty of advance notice and also comply with each other’s reporting schedules in a timely manner.  Grant related reporting and site visits and reverse site visits should be posted in everyone’s calendar. Science museums on sub-awards from research centers should be prepared to help their partner demonstrate to the awarding agency the impact of their efforts, including the numbers of people reached, demographic data, evaluation results, and so forth.

Partners share names, credits and logos. Partners need to share with each other how they wish their organization and key players to be referred to and credited in documents, press releases, websites, marketing materials, and publications. They need to have on hand a high-resolution copy of the partner’s logos.  They also need to be aware of specific funding agency requirements, including the use of agency logos, grant numbers, credits, and content disclaimers. It is a matter of courtesy that press releases, signage, marketing materials, and scholarly articles be offered for reviewed by partners ahead of publication.

Calendar awareness is critical. University and science museum calendars are typically quite different.  Science museums tend to be busiest on weekends, holidays, and in the summer, precisely the times when universities tend to lose faculty and students to vacation and travel.  Academic schedules are decisive factors in planning collaborative efforts. Do not expect to be able to advance a joint project or proposal during the month of August, when many university researchers take vacation breaks.  Other summer months may be slow as well.  Even different schools at a single university may have different semester schedules and holiday breaks; these can determine whether researchers and their graduate students are available when you would most like their help – for instance, if you want to plan face-to-face programs with researchers when your museum is full of families on holiday.

Time management and other forms of courtesy. Time management is a critical area for faculty researchers as well as for science museum staff.  Research faculty tend to have complicated and irregular schedules teaching courses, advising, conducting laboratory research, meeting faculty commitments, attending scientific meetings, writing and reviewing grants, and completing administrative tasks. In general, researchers want to contribute their expertise; they do not want to get involved in organizational, operational, or administrative details of education outreach initiatives. In all cases, it is beneficial to be clear at the start what roles the research partners would prefer or prefer not to assume.  When researchers have committed to work with your science museum on a public engagement project, respect their time, and make it as easy for them as you can. Work with their administrative assistants or their education outreach directors.  Provide directions, parking, badges, escorts. Graduate students can be more flexible with their time.  One thing they will deeply appreciate is access to food, vouchers for the cafeteria, places to safely stash their backpacks and laptops, and so forth.

A little appreciation goes a long way. The researchers with whom you collaborate are probably going well out of their way to make their commitment to education outreach a serious one.  It can be time-consuming and even a little stressful if it means venturing into areas beyond one’s comfort zone. Give back to the researchers you work with.  Recognize their efforts. Write thank you notes.  Invite them to museum events, offer to involve their students or provide opportunities for them to exercise their education and outreach skills.  Encourage your partners to link to your website and provide them with photos and videos of your activities for them to post on theirs. Share positive visitor comments and research and evaluation data with them.  And don’t forget to celebrate both minor and major accomplishments along the way.

Deeper Stewardship Practices

Science museum – research center partners can develop deeper, more grounded collaborations by making real efforts share underlying goals and perspectives.  Here are some further characteristics of partnerships that have the potential to reach beyond their initial goals.

The partners cultivate cross-cultural insight and understanding. University science and engineering research departments on the one hand – and science museums on the other – each have particular and somewhat idiosyncratic organizational structures and values.  They operate on different calendars, use different vocabularies, respond to different hierarchies and different motivating forces, and have wholly different arrays of staffing.  For the most part, the individuals that inhabit these distinct types of organizations come from very different backgrounds; their assumptions, pathways and agendas don’t necessarily intersect.  Thus the science museum participants in such a partnership should do their best to get to know and to understand the culture of the university research center. [Section One in this guide can help.]  They should also do a very good job of communicating to the research center participants the culture of the science museum and the field of informal science education. To help with that, the NISE Net offers for university researchers the guide Bringing Nano to the Public: A Collaboration Opportunity for Researchers and Museums, by Wendy Crone.  It provides a primer on science museums and on the practice of informal science education. It is available from the NISE Network at http://www.nisenet.org/catalog/tools-guides/bringing-nano-public

The partners open more doors to each other.
Sometimes the simple courtesies of providing hassle-free access can help build friendship and familiarity, as well as advancing the work.  The research center PI can be recognized by the Museum director and invited to participate in special events.  Museum memberships, passes, and parking  vouchers might be offered to partners and frequent guest researchers so that they and their graduate students can become familiar with all the museum has to offer.  In turn, university research centers can provide campus website and wireless accounts for the museum staff who visit them frequently. A consultant-level university ID card can help the museum educator gain access to campus libraries and scientific journals to help them do background research.  A parking pass provided for on-campus meetings is often a necessity.  If the research center has an email list and online calendar, museum staff can be put on it and kept informed of seminars and other activities in the area of research they are reporting on.  The more deeply the museum staff understands the university partner’s research field, they better they will be at translating it for broader audiences.  They can attend the research center’s conferences and symposia when possible.  They can also contribute to them by bringing posters, demonstrations and multimedia about the center’s education outreach efforts.  A study by Randi Korn & Associates concluded that if partnerships involve extensive volunteer programs for scientists, these relationships succeed better when the science museum commits “requisite staff time, money, and resources” to their volunteer programs. [RK&A 2006, 6.]  We have found, that lunch vouchers for graduate students who volunteer are very much appreciated.

Collaboration on educational content. The science museum partner owes the research partner a high level of professionalism in ensuring the accuracy of the content it develops and presents.  Museums should be able to guarantee that the staff they hire or assign to the project have the proper training and the necessary skills to do a good job. These of course include science education and communication skills, but if the job involves interpreting current research for broad audiences, then the staff assigned should have or quickly acquire a somewhat sophisticated understanding of that field of research.  Ideally they would have some research background of their own, which would help them quickly learn the key issues and terminology of the field they will be covering, so as to better consult with the partnering researchers, and they should also understand the field’s broader impacts and relevancies.  Training in journalism or science journalism is often helpful. The staff should make every effort to be in touch with research and activities at the research center, getting to know scientists and students and learning about their ongoing research, while being a resource for them when they are addressing school or public audiences.

On the other hand, the science museum should maintain a level of editorial independence over content that ensures they are not merely acting as public relations liaisons for the university. A science museum’s integrity and the public perception of that integrity is one of its most valuable assets. Eighty-four percent of respondents to a 2008 Reach Advisors–ASTC study described information presented by science centers as “very trustworthy.” (Reach Advisors 2008).  It’s our job to keep it that way. Most university partners will understand that this public trust is what makes science museums such ideal education outreach partners.

Many university researchers will be surprised at the level of simplification required for sharing scientific research effectively with broader audiences.  In discussing strategy, I always make it clear to researchers that for most audiences, we need to be able to start at a very basic level of explanation.  We often need to provide a broad contextual scope of work being done in the field – including work being done by other researchers and research centers. Otherwise, we risk doing the public a disservice – we risk distorting their view of the full breadth and depth of a field of research and becoming merely a public relations arm of the university.  Our goal is to collaborate with the research group on increase public awareness and engagement in a field of science, with a particular up-close and personal view into the exciting research activities of a local team of researchers.

It is also the science museum’s job, of course, to ensure that the experiences they create are successful in engaging and educating their audiences, and that their exhibits and programs are safe, appropriate and accessible.

Professional development in science communication. Some researchers are happy to be content advisors and to leave the education outreach to the science museum experts. They do not want to have to try to teach or entertain public audiences, or to attend workshops to learn new informal science education or science communication skills. Others want very much to be involved, in making presentations, designing exhibits, and being part of special events, and may be quite eager to get some guidance from museum staff and even to attend some training sessions.  Three museums involved in the NSF-funded Portal to the Public project have reported getting excellent feedback from scientists who were willing to attend even multi-week informal science education training programs. [Schatz, et al, 2010].  The RK&A study found, however, that “most scientist interviewees resisted being formally trained in an informal environment,” and preferred “learning through collaboration. … They envisioned a partnership where they could contribute knowledge and passion about content, and museum staff could contribute knowledge of learning theory, exhibit design, the public, etc.” (RK&A, 2005b. and June 2006, p. 5). At the Museum of Science, we try to approach these options flexibly.  We offer one-on-one consultation on upcoming guest researcher appearances, as well as “sharing science” workshops and practicum and week-long internships for graduate students and post-docs, and we offer afternoon science summer communication workshops for REU and RET students associated with our research center partners. (REU stands for Research Experience for Undergraduates and RET stands for Research Experience for Teachers – two popular NSF grant programs.)   The research center faculty are extremely pleased that their museum partner is also helping them cultivate the research communication skills of their students. [Donahue Institute, 2009, 2010].

One of the biggest frustrations for university partners is the relatively high staff turnover rate at science museums. It’s easy to see why, given that successful partnerships rely on building long-term relationships and museum staff becoming quite familiar with the research area at the center.   As a museum manager, it is frustrating to invest time and resources in mentoring and coaching new staff – these are never “cookie-cutter” jobs – they require a unique combination of skills that need to be cultivated over time – and then see that person walk away to another position in another year or two.  But for the university research center partner, it is also very frustrating that once their researchers have taken the time to welcome and bring a new person up to speed on their research and to plan collaboratively together, they then have to start the process all over again.  Science museums not only need to have a fairly senior level person at the museum to be the primary liaison – someone who is not likely to leave in a couple of years, but also need to ensure that the work is funded well enough to attract and hold quality candidates and, if it is a long-term collaboration, that they come committed to stay for at least a few years.

Evaluating the partnership. Just as the educational activities the partnership produces can and should be subject to evaluation, so can the partnership itself. A true collaboration should be perceived by the partners as benefiting their own organizations as well as their intended audiences. Every so often it makes sense to deliberately reflect on and communicate about what is working and what could be improved, and to check whether expectations on both sides are being met.  You don’t want stresses to build up that go unnoticed and un-communicated.  One way to do this is to have an external evaluator conduct “stakeholder interviews” to help you assess the health of the partnership and to collect new ideas for improving both the collaboration and what it produces.   Such interviews can be included as part of the evaluation of a large project the partners have undertaken together.   Sometimes just a good reflection and brainstorming session over coffee and refreshments can freshen the collaboration with new ideas to explore.  And since the media and technology landscape is always evolving, it’s always good to check whether the partners are availing themselves of the best current means of connecting with new audiences.

In the next section, we will look at how museums can evaluate what they have to offer prospective research center partners and how they can be proactive in recruiting a partner.

top | next: Recruiting a partner…

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