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.

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