Behind The 'Genius Awards'

Silhouette of human head with a light bulb over a pile of money
The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced its "genius grants" on Sept. 19. The $500,000, no-strings-attached fellowships recognize people in a wide variety of fields. This year's recipients include a developmental biologist, a sculptor, a country doctor, a jazz violinist, and a deep-sea explorer.

How are Fellows selected?

There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: 1) exceptional creativity; 2) promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment; and 3) potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment. Rather, it's an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential. The purpose of the Fellows program, the foundation says, is to enable recipients to "exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society."

What is the selection process like?

The selection process begins with formal nominations. Hundreds of anonymous nominators assist the foundation in identifying people to be considered for a MacArthur Fellowship. Nominations are accepted only from invited nominators, a list that is constantly renewed throughout the year. They are chosen from many fields and challenged to identify people who demonstrate exceptional creativity and promise. A 12-member selection committee, whose members also serve anonymously, meets regularly to review files, narrow the list, and make final recommendations to the foundation's board of directors.

What do the recipients receive?

The stipend for the MacArthur Fellowship is currently set at $500,000, paid in quarterly installments over five years.

Why are there no strings attached?

The MacArthur Fellowship is designed to provide seed money for intellectual, social and artistic endeavors. The foundation believes that highly motivated, self-directed and talented people are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources. Plus, the
foundation believes that adopting a "no strings attached" policy provides the maximum freedom for the recipients to follow their creative vision, whether it is moving forward with their current activities, expanding the scope of their work or embarking in entirely new directions. There are no restrictions on how the money can be spent, and no reporting obligations.

How are recipients notified?

Generally, the director of the program calls the new Fellows just prior to the announcement each year, and a confirmation letter follows. As the foundation notes, Fellows' responses are just what one might imagine — amazement, gratitude, and sometimes incredulity.

How many Fellows have there been?

The MacArthur Fellows Program was the first major grant-making initiative of the foundation. The inaugural class of MacArthur Fellows was named in 1981. Including this year's Fellows, 732 people, ranging in age from 18 to 82 at the time of their selection, have been named MacArthur Fellows since the inception of the program.

To learn more about these awards:

• To read more about the Genius Awards and the MacArthur Foundation, click here

• To see the list of this year's winners, click here.