I am part of a project to make a planetarium show about the brain and exploration called Neurodome. First, as detailed below, after trying various traditional funding avenues, we are using Kickstarter to raise the cash. As of Tuesday morning, we are 95% of the way towards our goal of raising $25,000. Please consider supporting this effort and spreading the word! And the more we raise, the better the quality and content of the show and animations! Neurodome on Kickstarter:
Second, given the current crisis in outreach funding, maybe we need to seriously consider crowdfunding campaigns as a mainstream avenue for funding our small projects. It seems like this really could be viable replacement for the telescope-based NASA EPO proposals (e.g, HST EPO grants). This has been successfully done at least once before for Black Sun, a documentary about minority astrophysicists.
Here’s the tale of the fraught funding history of Neurodome from the project lead, Jonathan Fisher, a postdoc at Rockefeller University, and my friend since undergrad at UPenn where we Physics majors together.
We applied for a small grant from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund. The feedback was that our project was more scientific and technical and didn’t really qualify as “art.”
We then approached Sloan, which funds film and theater projects through their Public Understanding of Science and Technology program. At that point, we were not encouraged to apply, largely because the project was at too early a stage and sounded like an arts project than a science communication project. It should be noted that Sloan very recently has been funding more independent film projects, though almost exclusively in conventional (e.g. flat-screen) formats.
Based on positive feedback from a program officer, we the put together a large proposal for NSF’s Informal Science Education (ISE) program. The proposal did very well and was largely recommended for funding; however few projects were funded that year and ours was not among them. More importantly, though, according to the program officer, it turns out that NSF’s ISE program has changed in recent years and no longer supports “product” type projects, like making a film, etc. They now seek hypothesis-driven education proposals, essentially educational psychology/sociology programs and the program has been renamed Advancing Informal STEM Learning. I should point out the inherent difficulty with the NSF approach: They are requiring a strictly data and hypothesis-driven proposal even for novel “informal” science education projects where educational impact is very difficult to quantitatively assess. Also, any formal assessments typically require surveys, and surveys require IRB approval because you are “experimenting” with humans, and IRB applications require explicit hypotheses and quantitative measurement techniques.
The point? Early stage, innovative EPO ideas—particularly those initiated by scientists—have few avenues of support. And this was before sequestration!
NSF has in the past dished out big bucks to large, well-established production groups that are making traditional, frankly incrementally novel products. WGBH, for example, received $2.9 million to produce Peep and The Big Wide World Season Five. Now NSF doesn’t fund development of products (e.g. planetarium shows). Meanwhile, arts foundations are so ridiculously strapped for cash that they can’t afford to fund anything that could possibly fit into another category.
Now that our Kickstarter campaign is doing well, we have attracted private foundation interest (we’ve been solicited to apply to the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and National Geographic distribution has expressed interest. We’ve found a first venue for our screenings in the East Village Planetarium at the Lower Eastside Girls Club!
What outreach project would you consider crowdfunding? What about going further and crowdfunding the science too, like Travis Metcalf did with FundaGeek? Technical question: Could we give a percentage of the Kickstarter-raised funds to our institutions as overhead so it would “count” as an overhead-bearing grant?
(This post is a bit modified from the draft version which was accidentally prematurely published.)