The inner workings of the human brain, the mysteries of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, the impact of human activity on the natural order of life on Earth – even a peek at the topics tackled by films supported by the National Science Foundation’s Informal Science Education (ISE) program reveals the deep pockets of the Arlington-based initiative.
Established in 1984 with a budget of US$4.6 million, the ISE aimed to increase the public’s understanding of science, mathematics, engineering and technology through learning achieved outside the academic arena. Its purpose remains unchanged, but the ISE’s annual budget is now about $56 million and it supports between 55 and 75 projects a year, about one third of which are film-based. For each project, the ISE contributes one third of the total production costs and half of the costs associated with outreach and evaluation initiatives.
Producers interested in ISE funding need a U.S. terrestrial or cable/satellite broadcaster on board. ‘We’re looking for venues that will get a large public audience,’ explains Hyman Field, senior advisor for the public understanding of research at NSF. ‘We’re also looking for a plan to promote [the film], so people will actually watch it.’ Money from the ISE cannot, however, be used to purchase program-related advertising. International producers working with a U.S. broadcaster are eligible for ISE funds, but Field recommends the U.S. partner be named the principal investigator for the grant.
Projects that promote science and technology to groups currently underrepresented in these fields – such as women, minorities, and persons with disabilities – are encouraged by the ISE. Another ISE goal is to improve access to science and tech in inner city and rural areas.
As suits an organization promoting awareness of technology, the ISE application is executed entirely online. Two proposals are all that’s required. ‘The preliminary proposal is really a way to open a dialog with us,’ says Field. ‘We’ll write back a letter that says we think it’s a great idea, here’s some things you may want to consider in a full proposal. Or, we’ll tell you we don’t think it will be competitive and here’s why. At that point, people will have the name of someone here and we can talk through things.’
The deadline for the next round of preliminary proposals is August 2, with the full proposal due November 15. Field says the ISE aims to respond to preliminary proposals at least one month prior to the second deadline, but early applications receive an immediate response, allowing time for consultation between proposals.
The NSF is funded by the U.S. federal government, so the ISE must be able to prove its objectives are being met. As a result, an evaluation component must accompany each project at the three stages of production: development, to ensure there’s interest; rough-cut, to address weaknesses; and post-broadcast, to determine the impact of the program. Says Field, ‘In the past, our grants often ended when a production was completed and on the air. Now we’re saying, keep the grant open for another year and have some money and a plan to do a summative evaluation.’
The ISE is currently investigating methods to keep the public up-to-date on science issues. One possible initiative sees the pbs strand ‘Nova’ reformatted four times a year as a current affairs magazine. Explains Field, ‘The show would do eight to 10 minutes on a new area of research, three to seven minutes that review an area of research previously covered, and maybe a panel of scientists would discuss an area of ongoing research.’ The initiative is funded by a small planning grant from the ISE.