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Although there are a number of federal agencies that fund science, including NASA, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the bulk of my grant-writing experience has been with the National Science Foundation (NSF). Each funding institution is different, so I will focus on the NSF process.
I know of only one National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that supports artistic endeavors: the Antarctic Artists and Writers grant. That is an unusual grant since it provides logistics support and access to the Antarctic continent only; no other funds are supplied.
If you want to photograph science and be paid for your work through an NSF grant, you need to either partner with a researcher submitting a scientific proposal or get your own science education grant.
1. Collaborating with a researcher
All proposals to NSF are evaluated based primarily on two criteria: “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts.” Intellectual merit is straightforward: are the proposed scientific advances worthy of funding? NSF more loosely defines broader impacts as “how well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning?”
Examples of broader impact activities include training graduate students, giving public presentations, and developing educational materials for classrooms. (For a more comprehensive list, click here). Many scientists hit the wall when they get to the broader impacts section of a proposal. Often, a well thought-out broader impacts section can make a proposal stand out from the crowd. But scientists traditionally do not receive training in educating the public, and many are interested solely in communicating with their peers. This has led them to partner with people who specialize in communicating science, like myself. As a collaborator on a proposal, I offer unique solutions to the broader impacts criteria. But the reality is, it often comes down to dollars and cents. It’s a juggling act for researchers to keep the overall project budget low while wowing the reviewers with creative broader impacts.
2. Writing your own grant
Instead of collaborating with a scientist on a grant, you can also write your own grant. When searching for a grant solicitation (this is an “ad” requesting proposals), always be cognizant of the end result. What is the funding agency hoping to achieve?
In the case of my “Live from the Poles” project, I applied to a solicitation in Informal Science Education. Photography was not the sole purpose of the grant — the goal was to educate. In this situation, it helps to think of photography as a tool, a means to an end. Still confused? Browse the NSF website to find past awards. You will see what has been successful, and it may inspire you to come up with some ideas of your own.
My last word of advice to those seeking government funding — be patient. It took years of learning from two other failed proposals before I finally got “Live from the Poles” approved. Once a grant is submitted, you won’t hear anything for up to nine months. Did I mention patience?