MILLENNIUM AWARDS: SCIENCE FOR SPECIAL NEEDS

So maybe you've done some volunteering and now you've got some ideas of your own--how can you take them forward? Doesn't that cost money? Yes, it does. And that is why several scientific organisations and societies offer grants for Public Understanding of Science (PUS) activities. Here's how to find the sources and get the money.

The granddaddy of PUS funders is COPUS, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science. It has three grant schemes from which sums of up to £20,000 are available. COPUS also publishes a number of useful guides for would-be science communicators, including Out and About, which gives lots of examples of successful activities.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is also a generous supporter of science outreach. Chris Smith, Catherine Hawkins, and Shibley Rahman, all Ph.D. students at the University of Cambridge, have used a £7000 PUS grant from the BBSRC to develop their own hour-long, weekly science radio show on a local station, Cambridge Red Radio (107.9 FM). It sounds like a big commitment, but Shibley says, "The actual research can take some time, but it's normally something that we would do say on a Saturday evening when we might be down the pub anyway." And he points out, "The research councils do ask us whether we've made any effort to [explain our work to the public], so it's actually not a hobby anymore, it is quite a serious part of our work."

While some schemes provide significant amounts of money for innovative projects with national impact (see side bar), there are also schemes which can provide the small amounts of money needed to get less ambitious projects off the ground. Learned societies are a good place to look for these--many have schemes to fund PUS activities in their own field of interest. Tracey Wells from the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) explains that any activity funded by their grant scheme "has to be chemistry, or have a big element of chemistry." They recently provided funding for materials for a photographic workshop, in which the chemical processes involved in developing and fixing photographs were explained. Their one stipulation is that funds are not provided for curriculum based projects, although they do fund extension activities for schools, such as science fairs and open days.

The Institute of Physics (IOP) gives Public Understanding of Physics grants of up to £500. Initially intended to help physicists put on events during National Science Week, they will now consider funding applications for innovative events and activities held throughout the year. Shuk Kwan Liu, who administers the fund, was enthusiastic about a weekend rocket launch extravaganza she attended recently. A local rocket group was involved and was sending up some really big rockets, but "I didn't see them because I was too busy making my own water rocket!" she said. Another very successful event, Zip Up the Inclined Plane, involved a huge model of a zip which people could play with to help them understand the physics of clothes fastenings.

So why do learned societies operate these programmes? According to Dianne Stilwell, Public Affairs Manager at the IOP, "it's good use of institute money," as it gets physics activities put on locally and gives members ownership of a project, rather than relying on the institute's staff in London to spread the word.

Applying for a grant can seem pretty daunting, especially if you've never done it before. So Next Wave asked Helen Goulding, Programme Officer for the Medicine in Society Programme at the Wellcome Trust, for advice to PUS grant applicants. The first thing to do is to find out as much as you can about the organisation and the funding scheme you're applying to: "Try to get on the Web and find out a bit about the programme and find out the right person to talk to," she says.

Once you have located a programme that might be interested in funding your project, get the application form and READ THE INSTRUCTIONS! This piece of advice may seem really obvious, but according to Helen, "people don't do it." Successful applicants must then "explain ... how what they want to do fits with the actual programme," Helen tells Next Wave. If there is no obvious place to do this in the application form, then do it in a covering letter. And don't neglect the obvious. Amazing as it may seem, Helen says, "people quite regularly forget to sign their application form, and some people don't actually put an amount [of money they're asking for]."

If you are confused about some aspect of the application process, ask someone at the organisation for clarification. "But don't over-bug the people doing the administration," Helen warns. "They're perfectly willing to help," she says, but they're not going to write the application for you.

Note: Don't rule out an organisation because you aren't a member, you may still be eligible for funding. Both the RSC and IOP fund nonmembers. These others might, too:

Office of Science and Technology

OST Promoting SET for Women Unit

Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Society for General Microbiology