Finding a partner

The writing of new grant proposals is a never-ending feature of a researcher’s career, and one successful education outreach collaboration can lead to others with the same researcher or group of researchers, as the relationship deepens and the quality of the work evolves and improves over time, with clear benefits to all concerned. Once we have established a track record of successful partnerships with research centers, the word gets out, the funding agencies are impressed, and we have plenty of examples to show other potential partners. But how do we get started? How do we find a first partner?

Sometimes a potential partner comes knocking on our door. In the best of all worlds, that knock comes early enough in the proposal development process that we can work together to design and budget a sound educational outreach plan that can be fully vetted by both organizations and integrated into the proposal submission. This is a relatively rare occurrence, however, since there is insufficient awareness among the research community of the partnership potential with science museums (although that awareness is growing year by year). So, what we need to do – after we’ve completed our internal assessment and laid our groundwork – is to concentrate our efforts on creating conditions in which that knock is more likely to occur.

On a national level we can begin to put the word out to science funding agencies, program officers, professional societies, and university sponsored research offices that science museums are excellent education outreach partners for research centers, and we can show examples of what we can do.

On a local level, we can begin by taking steps to identify potential research partners – individual investigators or departments or centers of research within universities. One place to begin is by speaking with researchers with whom we’ve had a prior working relationship on a single event or even a series of programs. Let them know that the science museum is looking to expand its repertoire into areas of current research in science and engineering, and you’re looking for potential partnerships with researchers who may be interested in integrating educational outreach and public engagement efforts into their grant-funded research projects. Ask them if they have such plans or if they have colleagues with such interests. Ask them for advice on ways to let others in the department or university that you are interested.

Ask your board for advice. Board members may circulate in places and with people who have good suggestions and even better contacts. Some museums have active researchers as members of their boards.

If you have a specific subject area in mind, find out if a local research university has a center, department, or labs working in that area. You can explore their website. You can also make use of the grant awards and centers listings that science research funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, publish on the web. For example, at, you can find a list of all upcoming RFP’s (requests for proposals) and program announcements. You can even sign up for their alert list. For nanoscale science and engineering programs, you can check, the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s website, and click on Nanotechnology Centers, where you will find a list of these centers organized by federal science agency. Check if any are nearby. Do a Google search, with the name of your local college or university and “nanotechnology” or “nanoscience” or whatever topic you are pursuing. Your best bets are likely to be NSF-funded centers, because of NSF’s Broader Impacts mandate. NIH, NOAA, and NASA research programs are also often interested in education outreach. Each science funding agency has its own list of current programs and new program announcements. Some, like NSF, have daily or weekly email alerts with news of new program announcements. A good strategy is to find local researchers who will likely be responding to new program announcements and speak to them about a collaborative effort on education and outreach. Some researchers are more prolific grant-writers than others; you can find lists of past awards on agency websites, as well.

Some science professional societies, like the Materials Research Society, have education outreach committees and can give you guidance about members active in your area. Some of them maintain national speakers lists and/or databases of researchers willing to consult on education outreach, volunteer, or provide science content advice.

If you don’t have a specific topic area to target, and are interested in local connections with a variety of active researchers in your area, begin with the largest research universities. Look at their websites to find their science and engineering departments and institutes. See where their strengths are, where they seem to have serious investment or federally funded research. See if you can find out who are their science and engineering research “stars,” those whom they tap for public speaking engagements. Google the faculty and find out who participates in public outreach and who writes articles for lay audiences. Attend talks by leading researchers to get a feel for their public communication skills. Browse campus bulletin boards to find out about smaller, more informal events not listed on any public calendar.

Most universities and institutes will have press and/or community relations officers who understand the value of getting researchers and their work known in the wider community. You may try calling to let them know your museum is interested in working with their researchers, and seek their advice about researchers whose work may be of particular public interest. These professionals tend to know which researchers both enjoy outreach and are good at it. You can also ask to be put on the university or institute’s research news press release email list, although, under those circumstances, you will typically need to go through the press office before contacting the researchers. In all other circumstances, it is usually advantageous to make direct contact with researchers you wish to get to know better. Make an appointment; have a chat; gauge their interest. As discussed in Section One, many researchers have an intrinsic interest in participating in education outreach at science museums, whether or not they are required to do so.

You may also want to make an appointment at the university’s office of sponsored research or with a provost for research. These administrators can often provide a list of all the funded research projects on campus, and this can be a place to start in looking for partners. These administrators should already be aware of the advantages of strong education outreach programs tied to research proposals; and if not, you may be able to share that idea with them. They are in a position to advise researchers on their broader impacts requirements and the opportunity of working with your museum for education outreach collaborations. This is where your proactively developed briefing sheet on audiences, venues, and impact and your sample “menu” of outreach options may come in handy.

As mentioned previously [Section One], some universities and research centers employ designated education outreach coordinators, and these knowledgeable specialists may be delighted to have the opportunity to collaborate with your museum, and to expand the possibilities available to their program participants. Find a partner; open a door.

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