#23 from R&D
Innovator Volume 2, Number 2
MacArthur Fellows Program: Getting
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.
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.
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
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
could we obtain the greatest value to our country from the money
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
on Burch's thoughts, Rod MacArthur stressed:
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."
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
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.
Process, Not Product
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.
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