Maria Mackenzie takes us through the ins and outs of funding for creative projects dealing with science. If you are a SF producer of books, comics, movies or games and need funding, then read on. 

Sci-Fi creators and scientists have much in common. Both have the plasticity of mind to see beyond life as it presents itself today.  Both seek out the mystical and exist on the boundary between what is real and what is not (yet) real.  This article is a short guide for Sci-Fi producers who might consider working with scientists to access funding for creative development and expansion of their fan base.

To set the context let’s look at what’s been happening in the world of research funding.

Spock, the ultimate scientific research partner. There are many Spocks wandering around the universities wearing shorts and sandals even during the winter.

A brief introduction to the world of research funding

Most domestic research funding comes from the Research Councils.  You can find the full list here, but they include the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Medical Research Council and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The Research Councils negotiate their priorities with Government, are accountable to Parliament and derive their income from the tax payer.  There are also non-governmental funders.  The Wellcome Trust is the UK’s largest non-governmental source of funds for biomedical research.  The main beneficiaries of all these grants are Higher Education (HE) establishments.  These same organisations – mainly universities – also receive block grants from HE funding bodies like the Scottish Funding Council. Most Higher Education establishments undertake lots of research as well as teaching and are heavily dependent on these sources of finance.

How does research funding relate to creators of SF?

For the past thirty years or so scientists have been criticised for making their findings accessible only to other scientists. Things are changing and these days research funds and block grants for the Higher Education sector are dependent on evidence of ‘wider impact’.  ‘Wider impact’ is basically making an impact beyond the science community; allowing scientific advances to be debated, thought about, tested and applied to the real world.  The pathway to that wider impact is therefore the press, the general public, policy makers, government officials etc.  That’s where you come in.  Working with an artist expands the reach of a scientist’s work and shifts it into the public realm.

What we are seeing now is funding decisions based partly on how well scientists get the science out to the general public.  If you are an experimental artist, broadcaster, games creator or film maker with an  interest in biomedical advances visit the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Public Engagement’ page for funding streams aimed at teaming you up with the research community.  For other types of science or historical interest, The Leverhulme Trust runs an Artist in Residence Programme for UK universities and museums to foster new creative collaborations with artists.

The big daddy of research and innovation grant funds is the European Commission’s ‘Horizon 2020’ Programme which funds the UK research and HE sector to the tunes of billions of pounds. The Programme also launches or establishes the careers of some of the world’s most talented scientists. All Horizon 2020 projects have to result in a safer, healthier and more enjoyable existence for all of us and the science has to be thoughtfully-wrapped and delivered to scientific and non scientific audiences.  There is even a funding stream within Horizon 2020 called ‘Science with and for Society’. Its purpose is to make science more attractive (notably to young people), and increase the public’s appetite for new ideas and technologies.  An artist or group of artists won’t ever need to lead an application for EU funding, as individuals can’t apply and the administrative burden of managing that process is too cumbersome even for a group of creative practitioners. Universities and Research Organisations however are better positioned to apply for and manage the money. However in order for a bid to be successful they need people and organisations with a real connection to the public, to partner with them. Partners could be small businesses, local authorities or even better, collaborating groups of artists.

Could Sci-Fi books, graphic novels, films or video games be the perfect communication channel for grant funded scientific research? Yes. The funders evidently think so. And God knows, grant giving bodies want to hear from those who are communicating science already – in the form of fiction is fine – and have tested the market for their work.  Funders receive many half-arsed, unimaginative ideas from applicants who don’t have the creative communication skills to convey science to the public. Making science attractive to young people is a particular challenge and updates on university websites and blogs just don’t impress funders anymore.  Your ideas and experience will be most welcome.  This being said, your ideas must not be too wacky.  They must have the potential to appeal to a fairly large Sci-Fi audience.

As well as not being too wacky, please note that these grant schemes are primarily supporting advances in research. Funding applications have to be lead by a research organisation or university.   (A proposal for Arts funding could be led by you or a consortium of artists.  We’ll look at Arts funding another time.)  The challenge for SF creators therefore is finding the right scientists to team up with.

Where does a SF creator find the right scientists to work with?

With research teams leading on the funding proposals the emphasis is on you to network in order to meet them.  Most research funders hold public engagement events; start there as a way to meet scientists whose interests align with your own.  Go to talks and events led by the universities where scientists pitch ideas, which are usually free to attend and open to the public.   Take a look at science festivals as most have an education remit to engage the public in the development of ideas.  Follow the Research Councils and other research funders on Twitter. Find me on Twitter (@angribird) and follow some of the organisations I follow.  If nothing else, you’ll soon be up to date with the research landscape in the UK.

Although we don’t have an arts/science matchmaking service like the Science and Entertainment Exchange in the US, networks of artists and scientists are being bought together in other ways. ASCUS is a not-for-profit network of artists and scientists who support each other’s work. See more here.

To find out what will be expected of the SF creator in a grant funded collaboration, what gets funded and what’s in it for you and your audience, read part two, here.

Maria Mackenzie is a fundraiser and former documentary filmmaker, originally from London now living in Edinburgh.  She was until quite recently working with researchers and academics at University of Edinburgh.  Now she mainly supports arts, heritage and digital fundraising campaigns.  Feel free to follow Maria on Twitter (@angribird) or to steal the list of organisations that she is following in order to be informed of arts and science funding opportunities.