The research center advantage

Because research centers are better funded, longer-lived, larger, and more stable enterprises than individual research programs, it is particularly advantageous for science museums to seek opportunities to build relationships with the researchers who organize and lead them and with their education outreach coordinators.

Research center faculty leaders are typically the consensus-builders who know how to form productive coalitions and to mediate between the needs of funders, university administrators, department heads, research colleagues, and often other institutions involved in center or network collaborations. Quite often, they are also visionaries who consistently reach beyond their own particular research interests to grasp larger educational, social, and economic perspectives. They may be particularly aware of the critical importance of advancing science education and engaging with a science-literate public.

The larger pool of funding available to research centers and their longer operational timeline allow for a better-organized education outreach effort and a more efficient use of collective resources. It may allow for a more specialized investment in education and outreach, including support for university-based education and outreach coordinators. It may also allow for a sub-award to support a long-term education and outreach partnership with a local school, a science museum, or other science education organization. Many university-based research centers are large enough to support both an internal “education and outreach coordinator” and a science museum public engagement partner. This is the best of both worlds, since together the team can develop a creative menu of approaches involving faculty and students, bridging the two worlds to reach to a third, the public. These may even include a structured program of professional development in science communication and education outreach for research center students that will help them build their own professional careers.

A five to ten year education outreach partnership between a science museum and a research center provides fertile ground in which to set down roots, expand and grow. Relationships deepen, the work improves, and the partners reach broader audiences. They have time to take stock, evaluate, and improve their practices. They can cultivate new alliances and links to schools and community organizations. They also have time to share their experience and successful practices with others in the field.

The clear advantage of forming partnerships with research centers should not deter science museums from also pursuing more modest education and outreach partnerships with individual researchers or with small teams of researchers. These collaborations can be enormously fruitful for all concerned, especially if the science center already has staff and infrastructure available for working with the scientists and their students on a short-term or project-by-project basis. Individual investigators typically plan to do their educational outreach themselves or delegate it to their students. They may budget for some materials for outreach and offer to give talks or volunteer at science museums, however, they will typically assume that the science museums staff and facilities come without cost. Yet, even short-term collaborations do require science museum staff time and resources – for the planning and marketing of events and activities, and for training, guidance and support for researchers not familiar to working with school and public audiences. The unfortunate truth is that education outreach collaborations with researchers can end up consuming more in staff time and resources than they contribute to the science education mission.

The good news is that successful education outreach collaborations build their own momentum. A successful collaboration can motivate research partners to include financial support for these activities into their next round of proposals. As the partnership develops and demonstrates rewards, these investigators are more likely to speak with you about future collaborations on projects for which proposals are still in development. And, if they become involved in a larger center proposal, you may be able to work together to plan a more robust collaboration. Some research centers devote five to ten percent of their budget toward education and outreach activities. As specialists in informal science education, science museums can help research centers achieve the kind of impact that level of investment deserves.

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