Fantastic Worlds: Science, Art and Funding Part 2

By Maria Mackenzie

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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. If you have missed Part 1, you can read it here.


What will be expected of the SF creator in a grant funded collaboration?

This, you can discuss with your scientists. Depending on the funding stream the artistic result may be agreed before a proposal is submitted or it may be discussed after. Sometimes a research team applies for funding to work with artists without having selected the artists in advance. Once the research team is informed the proposal has been successful it goes looking for artists and agrees the creative ‘output’ with them at that point. Most funders appreciate that the artistic process is not straightforward – but then neither is the research process.  Sometimes things don’t go to plan for the science or the art.

Scientists Jason Dworkin (forefront), Daniel Glavin, and Jamie Elsila, through their groundbreaking research, have put the Goddard Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory on the map. Should NASA select a Goddard-proposed sample-return mission to an asteroid as its next New Frontiers mission, the lab will be among the first to analyze the sample to determine the source of life. The three are posed here in their new and better-equipped laboratory in the Center’s new science building. Photo Credit:  Chris Gunn Winter 2010
Scientists Jason Dworkin (forefront), Daniel Glavin, and Jamie Elsila.
Photo Credit: Chris Gunn
Winter 2010

One example of a project which had unanticipated creative outcomes was an artist-led climate change project, organised by Cape Farewell 40 artists including musicians KT Tunstall, Laurie Anderson, Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright and writers Suzan-Lori Parks and Andrew Revkin, travelled on an ice-breaking ship for a nine-day voyage off the coast of Greenland with the Cape Farewell project team.  Their aim was to experience and contemplate the effects of climate change first-hand and to begin a creative conversation with the rest of the world about the environmental issues they encountered. The Cape Farewell team didn’t insist that the artists produce a piece of art at the end of the voyage, but the funders ‘were keen’ (that means ‘they wanted’) creative yield.  As it turns out most of the artists were deeply moved by the experience and they wrote songs and poems, which unfortunately didn’t generate much attention during the life of the project. However, the trip was captured in a great documentary called ‘Burning Ice’ by Filmmaker Peter Gilbert who was also on the trip and a book was subsequently produced.  My point is that the artistic results were maybe not those the funders expected but the artists’ feelings were so authentic they resulted in a compelling and acclaimed documentary.   You can’t force creativity and funders know this.   If the Sci-Fi creatives on a project (or the scientists for that matter) can’t give what was promised at the in the application form a fitting plan B needs to be thought about and that Plan B needs to delivers something of value. If this level of pressure makes you nervous, consider forming an artistic collective to work with the scientists. In that way you support each other in the creative process.

Let’s not forget, scientists can be frustrated artists too.  If you want a glimpse into the world of researchers and how research can sometimes go wrong, go to this talk by scientist Uri Alon.

What gets funded?

Again, this depends on the funding stream itself, but research costs are usually made up of staff and student time, access to lab/experiment equipment, any specialist IT costs and travel.  For the creative partner the costs normally cover your time (usually at set rates per month not at consultancy rates) any equipment and travel costs directly related to the delivery of your part of the project. Grant funded projects can last from 1 – 5 years. Most projects led by researchers are very collaborative and some involve experts in their field from all over the world.

To summarise: what’s in it for you and us (your audience).

You can ease the burden of the research.   

Scientists regularly work in teams. With a few donuts they are able to excitedly speculate and bounce ideas off each other.  It is also a pleasure and privilege to meet some of the world research leaders. Once you meet one expert, you realise they all know each other and you can be introduced to the others too.  You could be inspired by their ideas. I am not suggesting for a moment that the scientific detail overpowers the human context of your fiction. Discard what doesn’t work for your story/film/game but infuse the good ideas into your Sci-Fi world.

Ra Page at Comma Press pairs science fictions authors with scholars and produces anthologies of short stories this way. Bio-punk is a project in which 14 writers were teamed up with scientists to ‘explore the increasingly grey area between the fantastical and that which is already within our reach’.  Take a look at the list of scientists involved in its production if you want to see who is interested in working with Sci-Fi authors. Also note the funders which support this type of collaboration.  In this case it was mainly the Wellcome Trust with additional contribution from the European Short Story Network, Creative Scotland and the European Cultural Foundation.

Credible science expands your audience. 

There are hardly any of these in the universities.
There are hardly any of these in the universities.

Let’s face it, you want your audience to include the sharp and futuristically-minded. Scientists fit the bill and they like to see a glimpse of their world depicted in Sci-Fi; the ins and outs of how to conduct experiments ethically, the fear of being unoriginal, the discovery that a theory is wrong and has to be worked up all over again etc. It will give you credibility if you understand these struggles when you create worlds with scientists in them.

In terms of your wider readership, non scientists also want good Sci-Fi which sounds true.  We want to experience on screen and in print happenings and inventions we can imagine coming into being in the future. And we want fewer ‘cosmic screwdriver’ cop-outs!

We don’t mind where your ideas come from as long as they are entertaining and appear scientifically authentic.  Some technical ideas may come from science, and the processes around funding may singe your soul temporarily but use the opportunity to feed your imagination. Let the scientists give you some theories and probabilities. You bring them to life.


MariaMaria 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.