Photo by Noah Rosenfield on Unsplash.

Shaking the Money Tree: How to Fund Your Outreach

By Brooke Smith and COMPASS

Aug 19, 2013


Minute Read


As we’ve described in many places, including this blog, we love supporting you in communicating, sharing, and discussing science outside your labs, classrooms, and the field. We know this isn’t easy and the practicalities of engaging aren’t always, well, very practical. I’ve worked hard to find funding to support our boundary organization so that our services, trainings, and asks of each of you are financially feasible. We’ve all seen the huge demand and appetite for science communication, but the funding sources to support your time and efforts to do this are scarce and patchy. Yet, they do exist!

Here are some tips and tricks we’ve seen others use to support communication and outreach:

Build funding for communication into your original research grant proposal.

Heather Leslie of Brown University says she’s found it helpful to fold communications work into research grants. Many, but not all, funding agencies support, encourage, or just simply allow funding for communication and engagement. It needn’t be an afterthought. Heather, who receives both government and foundation grants, says, “In my experience, private foundations tend to place a higher priority on science communication and translation.” Private foundation funding is often more supportive, flexible, and able to incorporate communication and engagement into a research grant. But public funding can play a role too, as Don Boesch from the University of Maryland says: “Some agencies, particularly NSF, are looking for broader impact, so consider building in public communication as an integral part of the project.” Government agencies are not all created equal, and it’s worth understanding what space exists for outreach and engagement under each agency’s portfolio. It’s often hard to navigate all the programs and opportunities for grants within a government agency, so we always think the best way to uncover this potential is to talk to a human being who can help you understand and navigate what’s available and possible.

Ask your department and university to pitch in!

Budgets are tight everywhere, but don’t give up on this without trying. If your research is highly relevant to your community, region, state, country, or world – leadership at your university will be invested in you sharing it. Advancing real-world solutions buoys the brand of almost every academic institution. If you find a great opportunity to share your knowledge, ask your department or university to support you (e.g., cover your airfare to Washington, D.C. to meet with legislators). And, be relentless. You may just need a few hundred dollars, and we’ve been impressed with how various departments have found these funds between the couch cushions when asked. If your science is relevant to a publicly contentious issue, chances are it’s even more important that it’s part of the discussion, yet this can make university funding a harder pitch. It’s important to keep at it, and be clear when asking for funds what new insights your science brings (and what it doesn’t).

Know your existing support.

Don suggests, “Get to know your institution’s public communications officer and make sure s/he knows and can describe what you do and its broader societal relevance.” These folks will want to help you get your science out there, as it makes their job easier and more impactful. They may also champion your request for funds from the department, president’s office or other university administrative channel, if you need to cover that airfare or hotel room.

Develop partnerships outside your university.

There are lots of organizations that benefit from your science and insights. Find them and ask them to support you, but only if it can be done in a way that aligns with your intent and beliefs. Sometimes, the costs of communication can be hefty. Daniel Conley from Lund University, who is the visionary behind the Vega Fellows program, says funding his entire communication training program, “Is still too much for one project, so we have found [several] partners that are interested and are willing to contribute. Having partners means you find a diversity of participants, which is very interesting for everyone.”

Fund your time to engage.

This is the most challenging one, and until we have a larger culture change where academia, promotion, and tenure reward outreach, we’re going to fall short. As Daniel says, “I wish I could help here with some great advice to others, but I can’t. Everything has been done on our own time.” And, Heather agrees… for many, this is “a labor of love.” That said, I do suggest considering building in funding for your time – even just a week or two – to engage as part of research proposals. Some funding agencies may allow you to do just that.

Get Creative.

Heather told me, “With some creative packaging of activities – like linking opportunities for students to experience real-world marine conservation policy making with providing testimony myself – I have been able to cover some of my travel costs through internal sources of research and teaching support.” That’s pretty clever. We also recently heard of a scientist who received financial support for administrative help. By taking a few hours a week of grant and lab administration off his plate, he is able to devote that time to engaging. This seems like a luxury, but it is possible if there are people or institutes who believe in and benefit from your science.

As we work and wait for larger scale change, and for our investment in sharing science to match the scale of our investment in science, how will you support your efforts? What other advice, tips, and tricks do you have for your peers?

Did you like this article? Share it out with your community.