Alfred P. Sloan Foundation: Grants for Higher Education

OVERVIEW: Founded in 1934 by General Motors exec Alfred Sloan, the Sloan Foundation has grown into one of the largest private foundations in the United States. The STEM fields drive the majority of Sloan's higher education grantmaking, but fellowships, research into STEM, and support for people of color are also important priorities. Funding streams are almost always restricted in some way (school, subject area, or target group), but within Sloan's programs there are many possibilities available.

IP TAKE: If you're thinking about better ways to teach science and technology, increase the number of women and ethnic minorities in the STEM professions, or harness the power of technology to make data and research more accessible, this is a funder you should definitely get to know. 

PROFILE: The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation “makes grants to support original research and broad-based education related to science, technology, and economic performance; and to improve the quality of American life.” In terms of education, many grants support research into improving the teaching of STEM and to increasing the number of minority students pursuing advanced degrees in STEM fields. 

With a focus on students earning Ph.D. or M.A. degrees in STEM fields, two key Sloan-supported fellowships often support groups (e.g. women, Native Americans, African Americans, and Hispanics) that have historically been underrepresented in the STEM fields. In the Sloan Minority Ph.D. Program, offered on several campuses across the country, students apply for funding through partner schools once they have been accepted into an M.A. or Ph.D. program. By contrast, the Sloan Indigenous Graduate Partnership is offered at four regional centers, and is designed to support Native Americans and Native Alaskans pursuing advanced degrees in STEM fields.

Traditionally, the foundation has awarded millions of dollars to these programs each year. But there are also grants available for organizations working in closely aligned areas, such as support for American Indian students at tribal colleges.

Another higher ed Sloan initiative is called Science of Learning STEM, a subprogram of its Science in Higher Education giving area. This effort is dedicated to supporting research into how students (mostly college, but to a lesser extent secondary) learn STEM subjects. Sloan also uses Science of Learning STEM to expand interest in science and math among historically underrepresented groups, including by supporting university efforts in that area. 

Sloan offers funding for higher education through its Digital Information Technology program, which consists of three sub-programs:

  • Scholarly Communication, in which technology tools power the dissemination of scholarly research;
  • Universal Access to Knowledge, which seeks to digitize knowledge and has supported major information repositories such as Wikipedia, the Library of Congress, and the Internet Archive;and 
  • Data and Computational Research, which is focused on “help[ing] researchers develop tools, establish norms, and build the institutional and social infrastructure needed to take full advantage of...data-driven, computation-intensive research.”  

In all cases, Sloan prefers DIT work in which data is made widely accessible and easily transferrable between different technology platforms, where research can be replicated, and where data research models are explored.

In the realm of economics, Sloan emphasizes “theory-based, empirically-tested understanding of the U.S. economy” and “funds grants for high-quality original research that promise to broaden that understanding or use it to improve American institutions,” with “improving the American quality of life” as the ultimate goal.

Another way Sloan supports higher ed is through its Research Fellowships program, which gives awards to young scholars in physics, chemistry, mathematics, neuroscience, computer science, economics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, and ocean sciences. Fellowships are “designed to identify those who show the most outstanding promise of making fundamental contributions to new knowledge,” and fellows “are free to pursue whatever lines of inquiry are of the most compelling interest to them.”

STEM Research, yet another Sloan program, supports “original, high-quality research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” Subprograms include the Digital Sky Survey, which “helped build and operate a pioneering, specially designed telescope and experiments” to study the heavens; the Microbiology of the Built Environment subprogram, which examines the “complex microbial ecosystems found in the built environment,” and the Deep Carbon Observatory, which “develops and deploys new instrumentation, collects observations, and performs analyses” in order to “revolutionize our understanding of the carbon deep in Earth” and its relationship to fossil fuels.

Also sometimes involving university participation is Sloan's Public Understanding of Science, Technology & Economics program which seeks to "give people a keener appreciation for the increasingly scientific and technological world in which we live," in part by functioning as a bridge between the hard sciences and the humanities.

Last, but certainly not least, is Sloan’s Energy & Environment program. Broadly speaking, this program’s focus is “to advance understanding about the economic, environmental, security, and policy tradeoffs associated with the increased deployment of low-and no-carbon resources and technologies...and identify the resulting impacts on the quality of American life.” Within that scope, four of Sloan’s main “core outcome areas” either directly align with or have the potential to overlap with higher ed: fostering “Novel Research and Knowledge,” preparing the “Next Generation of Scholars and Practitioners,” the construction of “Multidisciplinary Networks and Communities,” and to “Educate Stakeholders and Disseminate Information for Decision-Making.”

Getting down to hard numbers, the Sloan Foundation recently awarded $25 million in grants toward science and STEM in higher education, with grant amounts ranging from $5,000 up to $10 million. Grantseekers can learn more about recent Sloan funding on its Grantees in the News page.

Interested organizations can apply for grants directly through the foundation. It's important to note that several officer-directed grants are awarded each year and that some program areas fall exclusively under one program officer’s purview, so grantseekers should reach out to the appropriate program staff via a letter of inquiry (phone calls are discouraged) before applying. Also note that the process for applying varies depending on the purpose and dollar amount of your request. There is additionally a separate page if you are applying for a research fellowship.

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