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Funded by Science: National Science Foundation Supports Documentary Projects

By Yasha Husain

From 'NOVA: Why the Towers Fell,' funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Courtesy of NOVA.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent government agency that was created in 1950 by an act of the US Congress, funds research and education in science and engineering. It is also a longtime supporter of documentary filmmakers' innovative approaches to science programming.

 "The charge is to make projects that inform the public about science, engineering technology and mathematics," says Hyman Field, NSF's senior advisor for public understanding of research. "We're looking for creative ways to get audiences engaged in science. And we're not just looking for the surface substance, but the process. We'll support projects that are well designed but have the NSF mission in mind."

NSF is interested in a breadth of science topics, including contemporary issues, science history, controversial science and children's programming, as well as a variety of formats. Among the prominent programs NSF has funded in recent years include Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America (Prod.: Blackside, Inc.), a six-part documentary that profiles 20 African-American, Latino and Native American scientists and engineers who forge new ground in various scientific disciplines; Journey to Planet Earth (Prods.: Marilyn and Hal Weiner), a series exploring the delicate relationship between people and the natural world they inhabit; Our Genes/Our Choices  (Prods.: Mike DeWitt and Liz Norton), a series exploring advances in genetics; Stormchasers and Dolphins, both large format productions from MacGillivray Freeman Films; and Bill Nye the Science Guy, a popular science show for children that has been a mainstay on PBS.

The funding arm for documentary projects is the Informal Science Education Program (ISE). Created in 1984, the ISE is part of the Elementary, Secondary, and Informal Education Division within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. The ISE is responsible for supporting innovative projects that promote science literacy and reach large numbers of people through the media, science museums and other non-classroom settings. 

Of the $5 billion NSF budget for 2003, ISE is allotted $56 million, although not all of that money goes to documentary productions.

Taking advantage of these resources, Field has begun a new project within ISE to encourage media outlets and producers to follow current science as it unfolds, in addition to presenting established science. Field explains, "In an effort to explain to the public what the ongoing science research is, who is doing it, why it's being done, and what the social, political and ethical implications of the research are, we have to do it in a timely manner. This entails a new look at how we're doing television programming, to help us come up with ways to keep the public informed as the science goes forward."

Field and ISE Program Director Valentine Kass are in charge of reviewing all science documentary proposals. "The two major things we look for when reviewing proposals are intellectual merit and potential impact," says Kass. "Yet NSF is not looking only to veteran producers," adds Field. "In fact, we are very anxious to find new producers." Field and Kass also note that one of ISE's key aims is to reach under-represented audiences, including minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and youth and adults from economically disadvantaged areas. 

Proposals go through a two-step process: the preliminary proposal and the full proposal. The preliminary proposal (an outline of up to six pages) and the full proposal (a document of no more than 15 pages) both must address or include the following areas or components: target audience, intended impact, scope and depth of science to be showcased, format and presentation, expertise of the staff, make-up of the advisory board, evaluation plan, outreach strategy, potential for implementation of project in schools, distribution plan, letter of intent from a broadcaster, marketing strategy to under-represented audiences, timeline, budget and other sources of funding.

While Field and Kass review the preliminary proposals, peer review panels evaluate the full proposals. Each preliminary proposal reviewed by ISE gets at least two reads. If the officers respond favorably to a preliminary proposal, they notify producers and point out areas on which to focus for the full proposal. "We'll give the best advice we can give that will help make a proposal more competitive," says Field.

 "Clearly, proposals need to have all of the elements we are looking for," Kass maintains. "Sometimes an independent producer will have an interesting, creative idea for a project, but has not thought it all the way through. As an example, a brilliant filmmaker submitted a proposal for a television series that the panel thought was quite wonderful, but the proposal lacked well-thought-out evaluation, outreach and marketing plans. On the first round it was declined, but I encouraged the filmmaker to develop the project further, fill in the missing pieces and resubmit. He took my advice. The next panel rated the proposal highly, and the project is now going to get funding."

Once full proposals are submitted, Field and Kass assemble a team of up to ten peer review panelists who read the proposals and write reviews on a certain number of them. The panelists later meet at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, for two days, and each proposal is discussed by each member of the panel and rated as "high," "medium" or "low." A proposal that addresses a specific subject area—and is a strong candidate for funding—may be submitted to one or more content experts that producers have suggested in their proposals. 

The written reviews and panel summaries are then sent back to the producer to answer whatever questions the panelists have. At this point, there might be a period of negotiation about the budget or the deliverables. The program directors in ISE then meet to discuss the likely projects to fund, review them across the whole program, and make recommendations for funding. The successful proposals proceed to the Division of Grants and Agreements (DGA), which writes the contract and makes the award. 

"And that last step is important," says Kass. "DGA has the authority to write the grant letter and make sure the group applying can conduct the federal grant and make it through a financial audit on the organization." Financial viability and appropriate accounting systems are additional criteria in the selection process.

 "NSF doesn't fund anything 100 percent," Kass maintains. "It's usually a third of production monies and half of outreach and evaluation. And it's important for the applicant to let NSF know plans for obtaining the rest of the money to cover the budget. There are about 300 preliminary proposals and 125 full proposals submitted per year; 30 to 40 percent of those get funding."

"NSF might make a commitment, but we might say you can't spend the bulk of the money until the total money is raised or you can guarantee production," Field adds. "If we make a commitment of $1 million, we might say that you can use $50,000."

"The NSF submission process is a lot of work," Kass admits. "It can be long and arduous, but most people acknowledge that the process makes the project stronger. Projects that do get the NSF stamp of approval can help people obtain other funding and support, because it's understood that the NSF award progress is so rigorous."   

For deadlines and the 2003 ISE Guidelines, visit the NSF website,, and refer to publication number NSF 03-511.   


Yasha Husain is a producer and writer based in Los Angeles. In 2002 she started Real Space Pictures LLC, for which she is developing documentary and multimedia projects related to space and environmental issues.