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February 9th, 2009

Tips from a science photographer 2

Posted by Chris Linder

In “Tips from a science photographer 1,” Chris explains how he went from writing grants as an oceanographer to receiving grants from the National Science Foundation to visually document scientific work. In this post he explains how to write a photography-based science grant. Check out “3“: How to partner with museums to make your grant proposal more attractive.
Much of Chris Linder's photographs, like this image, are made while helping with research. ©Chris Linder

Many of Chris Linder's photographs, like this image, are made while helping with research. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

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?

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Are there other photographers out here who have tips about writing NSF grants? Have any photographers been successful applying for grants from other science organizations?


  1. February 26th, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Eric Zamora

    Thanks Chris for your thoughtful address of this important topic. I work at the Florida Museum of Natural History. I am inspired by what you’ve done and motivated to follow in your footsteps.

  2. August 26th, 2012 at 3:59 pm


    Thank you JLSGoodness no I don;t want a refund !! I’m loniokg forward to the class, casting for models and couldn’t remember hte dates, got the paypal confirmation but hadn’t had nay other contact just expected a see on the xx of January type e-mail LOL. Just having trouble finding my way arround couldn’t find that page with more details for the life of me anywhere on teh forum I am following it now so should be kept up to date .. thank you for your help.

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