Biting the hands that feed me?

My “friend” Jonathan Sanderson recently described me as a sponger. He conceded that I did something “useful” on the two days a week I work as a school Physics teacher but said that “the rest of the time, you sponge off society”. Jonathan has a point – I mostly rely on some kind of public funding or charity for the rest of the work I do as a “science communicator”.

I’m one of the lucky ones. Over the past few years, I’ve been given well over a hundred thousand pounds to carry out various projects of mine. I will be forever grateful to the organisations, from NESTA to The Wellcome Trust, who have invested their money in making my dreams come true. But these organisations haven’t given me money because they are in the habit of indulging wannabe “creatives”; they have funded my work because, I guess, they believed that I was offering to do something worthwhile in the way of communicating science to the public. And I’d like to think that my work has indeed been, in some small way, useful or interesting to the world.

Before I continue, I want to reiterate that I know I have been incredibly lucky and that I am grateful to everyone who has supported my work so far and to those people who continue to support my work (I’m currently working on projects funded by STFC and The National STEM Centre).

But the system doesn’t work. Getting funding for science communication projects can be a frustrating, soul-destroying process. And this is coming from someone who is relatively successful in attracting funding. So, at the risk of appearing to bite the hands that feed me, I want to share what I, and others, think are some of the problems.

Most public engagement grants require you to fill in an application form of some sort. These can be incredibly time-consuming to complete and there’s no guarantee you’ll get funded, so, you have to decide whether the value of the grant and your chances of being successful justify the time. Hayley Birch, a freelance science communicator, told me:  “I’ve learned it’s really important to spend time looking at the criteria and pestering people at the funding organisation to check that you meet all of them (and also that they seem to be even vaguely interested in what you’re doing) before you start writing anything up.  Sometimes you get rejected because of something they failed to mention or make clear, and then you really are wasting time that could have been spent getting paid.”

Some of the grants out there have a disproportionate amount of paperwork associated with them – surely it cannot be in anyone’s interest to require lengthy application forms and evaluation reports for small grants? I imagine the costs of processing all the forms, and convening the inevitable committees for decision making, approach being as large as the sums of money being given away – a ridiculous state of affairs.

It’s unlikely I’ll be applying for many “small” grants in the future – the things I want to do in the future require large sums of money if they are to be done properly. And I don’t want to do them if I can’t do them properly (please get in touch if you’re a philanthropist reading this). Luckily, there are some places where I could go to try and get this sort of money, and again, there are various forms to fill in. Like funding for scientific research, these applications are usually “peer reviewed” – but this may not be the most sensible way of awarding such grants.

Jonathan, who I mentioned above, is a former TV producer and has been a co-applicant on a couple of grants I’ve recently applied for. He expresses the following concerns: “In many ways, I’m unhappy about the supposed peer review approach favoured by the likes of the research councils and Wellcome. The lack of a right to reply to reviewers (with Wellcome, at least) is a crippling omission. I wasn’t a big fan of the commissioning approach in broadcast, either, but I do think the editorial interactions with the decision-maker helped define and refine projects. At the very least, the creative risk was shared between the funder and the applicant, which I think was productive”.

I believe that “science communication” is a vital cultural activity. But it’s a relatively new one and one that needs nurturing and leadership. But who are the leaders in science communication? Who are the equivalent of those people who lead the worlds of art and fashion? I believe some of those roles should be filled by people at those organisations giving away large sums of money for public engagement.

I know this will embarrass him, but I look to Jonathan as a leader in the kind of work I’m trying to do. So, I’m going to quote from him again: “What I’d like to see is the principal funders recognising their leadership role more, and working with practitioners to develop and deliver the sort of projects they believe will work. It’s all very well strategising with government departments and big universities, but a few ‘how to fill in the application form’ workshops don’t constitute engagement with the practitioner community. I exaggerate the scale of the problem, but I hope you see my point.”

I agree with Jonathan – I’d like to work closer with funders to make ambitious projects happen. However, I don’t want things to become too much like the world of television, where relationships between commissioners and producers seem to be more important than anything else. Many of the funders I have dealt with seem enamoured with broadcast television, jumping at the opportunity to fund anything which promises a broadcast TV element. Many TV production companies are applying for public engagement grants to top up their budgets for a TV project and they’re often given this funding, despite their projects not being particularly innovative or interesting. Despite being a beneficiary of this “TV effect” myself, I can’t help but feel that such money could be better spent supporting more innovative forms of public engagement.

I’m writing this in the hope that the “decison makers” at the major organisations who fund science communication might read it. We science communicators are a weird bunch – often straddling the worlds of art and science in our work and bringing the two together in exciting new ways. Perhaps it’s time we did the same with the way we fund our work.

UPDATE: Since originally posting this, two of the organisations mentioned above have sent encouraging emails. I hope this might be the start of discussions which benefit us all.


  1. Embarrassed? Yeah, a little. I’m not so lacking in pride as to avoid being flattered, however.
    One issue, of course, is that wherever there’s brass there’s muck – you’re called on to review grant proposals, Alom, you’ve seen some of the rubbish that gets pitched. While I’m quick to criticise the funders for their approach, I wouldn’t want to belittle or overlook the challenges they face.
    I think one way of finding a tractable problem is to consider: who pays for idea development? At the moment this is usually a hidden cost, it’s not properly recoupable from project budgets. Frankly, anyone who thinks STEM engagement is a viable business sector hasn’t understood it.
    Notably, the project we’re doing with the National STEM Centre is, in effect, a development job. We’ve agreed a broad vision, and they’ve offered enough funding for us to run the pilot, work out how to scale it, and to write the budget/schedule/plan. They’re helping guide and shape the project, but they’re also trusting our judgement and skills.
    It’s a refreshing approach, and it shouldn’t be unusual.

  2. I join in you in praise for all those funding bodies that offer finance for science communication. Since money is scarce, funding should clearly go to the best proposals and so I can see that application forms and some sort of assessment process is necessary, but for me, the problem is less that the forms exist, and more the types of boxes that are on them….
    As a freelance writer, producer and science communicator, I am consistently frustrated by the lack of connection between the application process for funding bodies and the reality of how projects come to life. Jonathan’s point about development hits the nail on the head. It is an un-recognised, and therefore under funded part of the process for science communication.
    I wonder if part of the problem is that many funding strategies were set in place when people were largely applying to create informative leaflets and posters to put up in classrooms. The world has since moved on, and science communication is no longer just about giving a lecture or printing off some fun facts about science (which is not to say that these examples are not valuable or successful) but we are now looking to create interactive resources on the web, make short films, create live performances and so on. Wellcome has led the way with awards tailored to broadcast development and Sci/Art projects, but most other funding bodies are far behind.
    The development process for these types of projects mean that ideas are not able to be presented to funding bodies fully formed and able to tick all the old boxes. The projects coming in now need to be evaluated in a different way, or at least, with direct dialogue between funder and applicant, which is not a standard part of the application process, and ought to be.
    Another way in which funding strategies for sci comm have not kept up the pace, is that ten years ago, there were fewer people making a living out of science communication. Those who were full time communicators were largely touring schools with demos and lectures, and the rest of sci comm was carried out by enthusiastic academics in their spare time. This is an important distinction to make, because now that science communication has become a job description rather than a sidelined passion, we have to look at the funding process differently. For full time sci commers, and I know, increasingly time pressured academics, the value of the smaller grants don’t cover the time taken to fill in the form and comply with all the evaluation requirements, let alone carry out the communication itself.
    What HAS developed in funding strategies is the request for more work to be done for the same money – with in depth project evaluation requirements and so on. What HASN’T developed is a recognition of the shifting nature of the communication itself, who’s doing it, and the way in which it is being done.
    The questions that are asked on application forms, the financial funding brackets that are available and the process of awarding funds all need to be revised to recognise this shift.
    I would welcome a review of science communication funding strategies. We do straddle art and science in what we do and so we have to be able to keep up with the way in which the rest of the world communicates. The outside world has switched to digital while much of sci comm remains in analogue. Science, of all subjects, should not be behind the rest of the pack.

  3. If science communicators are spongers, then we scientists are spongers writ large since the sums we need to keep labs running are very big indeed! And the effort (and pain) involved in applying for research funding are correspondingly greater…
    I’m not sure I’m clear about what you’re asking from the funding agencies, apart from better dialogue during the application process. I would be wary about letting them lead (i.e. set strategic goals) since I think this is better defined by the applicants.
    Your comment about leaders of art and fashion made me wonder: who are they (if not journalists)? And what is so special about science that we need a distinct cadre of communicators. OK, I know part of the answer to that one. But do other subjects (history, engineering) promote professional communicators on their behalf?

  4. Stephen, you’re right – I’m not asking for much more than dialogue. Happily, I can tell you that representatives of one of the major organisations I refer to above have been in touch and invited me to talk further about these issues. I don’t necessarily have any brilliant answers – I just feel that the way people like me go about securing funding for our science communication work could be improved. For a start, I agree with Anna and Jonathan above – development funding would be incredibly useful.
    In terms of “leadership” – Jonathan has made this point elsewhere: we are not asking for funders to lead what we do in our work, but to “see more leadership from them. The difference is subtle, but significant!”
    As for why we need “a distinct cadre of science communicators”, I think the role science plays in our society / culture is qualitatively different to that played by other academic subjects and this demands that there are specialist “science communicators”. Actually, I think there should be other specialist “communicators”, helping people like me engage with economics, for example. (I don’t really understand what is going on in the world of finance).

  5. For what it’s worth, I did have some discussions a while back with some Law Society types about the demand for, for example, digestible advice on copyright law. Also – and this has turned out to be more significant than I realised at the time – defamation issues, particularly for a culture of increasing self-publishing.
    There’s a clear public utility to such communication… but I can’t see any mechanism for making it happen in that sector. I’m glad the STEM community isn’t in the same position.
    Conversely, I think it’s a failing of the science communication world that we’ve not done such an obviously, startlingly, brilliant job that the financial world is beating a path to our doors demanding that we do for them what we do for STEM. For the moment, at least, they seem happy that they’re well enough served by a combination of journalists and PR agencies.

  6. Perhaps the answer is to gather all of today’s acknowledged luminaries of sci comms under one roof to bash these issues into shape.
    When I was a practicing scientist, arts funding bodies turned the other cheek, as I didn’t have ‘an artist’ on board. Many science organisations adopted a fairly similar stance, back then – Wellcome has always been one of the most progressive in this area. That’s when I decided to stop applying to get cash to do the things I wanted to do, and went ahead and did them anyway. Risky but liberating. And I’m not being glib – it was an extremely difficult decision born of an intense sense of ‘lack of place’.
    I also couldn’t shake the notion that the application process for sci comms wasn’t a million miles away from the application procedure for science funding – high risk and laborious. That said, what would make it better? Showreels? Earlier stage interviews? Pitching?
    One thing an application does do very well is force us to frame a project in a way that others can grasp. Very useful for creatives, scientists and those who are both.

  7. Great suggestion about getting “luminaries” together to talk about this (perhaps some of us non-luminaries might also attend?). So, how do we make that happen? As you know, I’m a big fan of Wellcome’s – I think they are indeed the most progressive of the bodies who fund public engagement. Is this something they might set up?

  8. One of the funding issues for me is whether funders think they’re buying a product or a process. If it’s the former, it can be tricky explaining why all the planning, design (e.g. for exhibitions), venue booking (e.g. for events) etc hasn’t already happened. For genuinely innovative projects even the budget can only really be advisory until you do it. Without really understandning the internal pressures within funding bodies it’s difficult to know what to suggest (I’m assuming that “stop innovating” isn’t an option…)
    Anna’s refernce to art made me think. The Arts Council have funding streams tied to practitioners as well as to projects, as they see part of their work as developing the field. The gap they’ve left (acknowledged by many) is that “public engagement with the arts” activity is patchy. How could you support individual science communicators to develop in the same way?

  9. Great distinction, Andy, between product and process. I think you’re also right about the challenge of having to reverse-engineer funders’ internal processes in an attempt to understand their needs – I’m not sure if more transparency is called for so much as greater self-awareness?
    Funding individuals’ development was, of course, the very thing for which NESTA’s Fellowships were established. They were problematic in some ways but are nevertheless sorely missed, and it’s gloriously ironic that Alom’s thinking along the lines above was doubtless influenced by his time as… er… a NESTA Fellow.
    As for bringing a bunch of people together to thrash stuff out – yes, ultimately, that makes sense. But there’s a risk of that being a big workshop from which nothing emerges. Better to have proposals (even competing ones) on the table before convening a meeting?

  10. I find myself agreeing with most of what is being said here. As a university lecturer/scientist who spends a lot of time communicating (as opposed to a full time communicator) then I don’t actually find the application process that laborious – given that in the course of a year I might write a doze assorted grant application, telescope time requests etc, then nearly all of the communication-based grants I’ve applied for have been really quite straight-forward and lacking in red-tape by comparison. (That doesn’t mean that time is not being wasted on these, just that from my perspective it isn’t too much).
    The larger issue that seems to be emerging here is not the process of getting funding, but what is “fundable” in the first place.
    My own personal bugbear here is the impossibility of getting funding to just run something. Finding funding to develop new ideas, try out new approaches is tricky but usually achievable if you are willing to try hard enough.
    However, once whatever project you are working on is ready, it runs smoothly, the evaluation is positive and the impact clearly demonstrated then – in a flash – all the funding dries up. So, all that time , effort and money is wasted as the project disappears. One can always argue that any project sold have a funding model for continuation, and this should be indeed be the case, but if something is worth funding to develop, it may also be worth funding to actually get some of the benefits!
    The same insanity is starting to creep into research funding (the current SFTC fiasco is, at least in part, due to cutting funding to actually use facilities that we have just finished building in order to develop new one…) but I think it is even more prevalent in communications, to the detriment of all.

  11. Just wanted to pick up on Anna’s point about the changing nature of science communication. I think part of the problem is that the scientific community doesn’t respect science communication as a profession. There are plenty who would rather see science communication *only* done by scientists and who don’t see the need for any kind of a go-between. The problem with this, of course, is that most academics don’t have the time or the inclination. And though there are many brilliant communicators who are also scientists, we all know that there are others for whom it doesn’t come naturally. I do think that science communication should be regarded as a profession in its own right and not something scientists do for free in their spare time. Of course it’s important to work together with the scientists, but if the importance of professional science communicators was properly recognised perhaps securing funding wouldn’t be so difficult for people like myself and other freelance science communicators who have creative projects to offer.

  12. As far as I can tell from your experience Alom, one of the major problems is the absence of constructive feedback during the application process. (Try getting a book published!). Ideas can always be reworked, proposed budgets can always be negotiated. Problem is does this then double the decision making time, involve more people, more paperwork, and hence reduce the money on the table for grants. Part of the problem I guess is you are never going to get an easy ride or fairly rewarded when demand outstrips supply and the expectation is that this is something you want to do for the love of it.
    Maybe do the maths: Find out how many people normally apply for said grant, calculate your odds, divide total of grant by said odds, divide that by your weekly rate when paid, that’s how much time the application process is worth.
    I too am intrigued why so many funders for films insist on a TV broadcast. Need to press on these people how people actually access this kind of material these days. And it’s not at 3.30am on Teacher TV.
    Did I come across a touch negative there. Sorry.

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