Sponsorship: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation – Funding documentaries to enhance understanding of science and technology

In 1941, philanthropist Alfred Sloan summed up his vision by stating, 'The greatest real thrill that life offers is to create, to construct, to develop something useful. Too often we fail to recognize and pay tribute to the creative spirit.'...
May 1, 1998

In 1941, philanthropist Alfred Sloan summed up his vision by stating, ‘The greatest real thrill that life offers is to create, to construct, to develop something useful. Too often we fail to recognize and pay tribute to the creative spirit.’

To that end, the American industrialist, who rode the success of a ball-bearing company in the early 1900s to become the head of General Motors, established a foundation in his name that rewarded pursuits in science and technology.

Thirty years after his death, the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation okays us$53 million in grants and is worth more than us$1 billion in assets.

Film and television producers can seek funding under the Public Understanding of Science and Technology program, which is dedicated to enhancing understanding of the world around us through a keener appreciation of the increasingly scientific and technological environment in which we live. While the Sloan Foundation is one of the most generous foundations for documentary projects, its patronage also extends to the production of books, radio, theater, cd-rom, and the Internet projects.

‘In terms of seriousness, documentaries are unique in terms of how they treat in-depth subjects,’ says Doron Weber, the officer in charge of the Public Understanding of Science and Technology program. ‘I’m a great believer in television being an effective communications tool.’

The Sloan Foundation is backing two productions airing this fall on pbs: Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Nerds 2.01: A Brief History of the Internet (the under us$1 million budget funded by Sloan, pbs and opb), the 3 x 1-hour sequel to Triumph of the Nerds, which pbs will air in one night; and net.learning, from Anytime Anywhere Network Inc. (Karen Frenkel and Howard Weinberg) and South Carolina Education Television (who gets a 5% cut), on asynchronous learning networks, which allow Internet users to earn university degrees. The us$1.1 million two-hour one-off (also 2 x 1 hours) was fully funded by Sloan.

In 1997, two documentaries based on books in the Sloan Technology Series were broadcast, including one on the invention of television (Big Dream, Small Screen, wgbh) and the other on medical imaging technology (Naked to the Bone, wqed).

The Sloan Foundation has also funded six installments of the pbs historical series, The American Experience, including The Telephone, New York Underground, Andrew Carnegie: The Richest Man in the World, Influenza 1918, Dark Sun and Saved by the Wireless.

Support was provided to one-hour documentaries on the invention of the transistor and scientific management, and partial funding was given to productions about Stephen Hawking and the nature of the universe, mathematics, nuclear power and digital preservation.

Weber says he’s also working with fiction television producers to stimulate commercial television and films that use scientists as material for comedy and drama.

‘I’m always interested in talent,’ says Weber of the unsolicited requests for funding that come to his office. ‘But I prefer to solicit them myself, even going to people who work outside of our field of interest to convince them to do work that I am interested in.’

In general, grants of us$30,000 or less are made throughout the year by program officers. Grants of more than us$30,000 are made by Sloan trustees who meet four times a year. But, Weber says, there are no hard-and-fast rules regarding funding. ‘When we find something we like,’ he explains, ‘we tend to fund the whole thing.’

Brief letters of application should include, in addition to details about the applicant and the proposed project, information on the cost and duration of the work.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.