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.