#23 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 2          February 1993

The MacArthur Fellows Program:  Getting Started
by Kenneth Hope, Ph.D.

Dr. Hope consults on creativity; he was director of the MacArthur Fellows Program from 1982 to 1992.

Nobody can apply, and even the winners never know who chose them.  These mysteries only add to the interest with which millions of Americans greet the annual announcement of the MacArthur Fellows awards to individuals in the sciences, technology, and the arts.

Over the past 10 years, 383 individuals have received this award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

I think there's another, equally important reason why these fellowships attract so much publicity:  recipients can use the generous five-year grants however they wish.  Literally, no strings are attached; winners are not even asked to report how they spend the money.

The Fellows Program has captured the imagination of the American public for its bold design, broad scope, and fundamentally optimistic trust in individual initiative.  The awards are based on the premise that individual freedom and initiative have the greatest potential for discovery.  That, I think, is why the Fellows Program is so intriguing to citizens of a nation that continues to be built on the premise of individual achievement.

We began this program with a few simple precepts:  that individuals are the critical node of discovery, and that even with the best of intentions, institutions generally do not support our most creative individuals in a way that maximizes their potential.  After all, bureaucracies are designed for bureaucrats, and however innovative bureaucrats might be, they are unlikely to make critical discoveries that will lead America into the next century.

How to Spend All That Money?

In the beginning, way back in 1978, all we had was money.  The will of insurance executive John D. MacArthur created the foundation, and charged its Board of Directors to figure out how to give away his money.  MacArthur had no interest in learning how to make grants:  he said his specialty was making money, not giving it away, so he gave the Board complete freedom to design the perfect philanthropy.

Complete freedom was therefore the basis for the Fellows Program.  Since John MacArthur's will did not constrain the philanthropy, why should we, his agents, constrain the creative individuals we would benefit?

Although we are often accustomed, in our culture, to think of money as a goal, in this case we started out with all the money we needed and had to translate that money into truly meaningful wealth for our society.  When we began to examine the problems our society faced, we recognized that even with the millions of dollars at our disposal, we would be unable to address even a single problem comprehensively.  How could we obtain the greatest value to our country from the money available?


It was the founder's son, J. Roderick MacArthur, who encouraged us to specialize in something new.  "Even if we are one of the biggest foundations in the country," he said, "we won't amount to much if we do not concentrate on something that we alone can learn how to do best."  Rather than imitate other foundations, he argued, we should conceive a bold, unique plan to support individual initiative.

The idea was further sparked by an article by Dr. George Burch entitled, "Of Venture Research" (American Hearth Journal, December, 1976).  William Kirby, a Board member, brought this article to the Board when they were just starting to ponder the Foundation's direction.  Dr. Burch wrote: "There is a need for granting agencies to seek out investigators who are genuinely interested in research and exploration of the unknown to advance knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  These people should receive minimal support and be left alone without the annoyances and distractions imposed by grant applications, reviewing committees, and pressures to publish.

Elaborating on Burch's thoughts, Rod MacArthur stressed:
"Albert Einstein could never have written a grant application describing how he was going to try to discovery the theory of relativity.  That kind of grant application can't be done.  You cannot apply for grants or have anybody checking up on your progress when you're in the process of discovering something you don't even know is there yet."

Reviewing the recent literature on innovation and discovery, we found further arguments for this new approach.  For example, University of Chicago scientist Leigh Van Valen wrote "Dishonesty and Grants," in Nature (May, 1976) in which he pointed to an incompatibility "between honest grant applications and conceptually original work....  The scientist must either adhere to the original proposal at a loss to science, or do his best science while deviating from the conditions under which the grant was awarded."

We were also influenced by "The Foundation for Longshot Research," advocated in The Washington Post by columnist Daniel S. Greenberg:  "Static budgets, rising costs and aging of the bureaucracies that govern research are infesting the scientific community with a deadening caution that is producing a generation concerned more with security than science."  He proposed that the government "set up a bankroll for science that's off the establishment track.  It should be an institution designed to respect scientific eccentricity.  And it should be considered a failure if its research succeeds too often."

It was arguments like these, made by respectable scientists and journalists, that lent credence to the notion of a program to feed the real process of invention and discovery.

Supporting Process, Not Product

Recognizing that no product was ever created without process, we designed the Fellows Program to support process.  By standing the grant procedure itself on its head—by supporting creative individuals as individuals, rather than for whatever projects they might propose—we hoped to stimulate research for the sake of research.  We wanted to support work that might never find favor with bureaucratic review boards, in the interest of finding discoveries that could not be planned or anticipated.

We knew from the outset that this venture could have no guarantee of success.  We weren’t even sure how we could measure success or failure, in the common meaning of those terms.  By placing all our resources on individuals, and by supporting them in the process of their work, no matter what kind of work that was, we hoped to re-orient our society toward individual creativity, invention, and discovery.  These are fundamental resources, and we ignore them at our peril.

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