Behind The 'Genius Grants'

macarthur genius award
Though they are from very different disciplines, they are all elated about the same thing.

Latefah Simon and Erik Demaine have just been chosen to receive MacArthur Fellowships — the so called "Genius Grants" announced Sunday Morning.

"It has become a very big deal," says Dan Socolow, Director of the MacArthur Fellows program.

But it is a very secret deal. Even though CBS News Sunday Morning got an advanced peek at this year's list of 25 winners, there's a lot we can't tell you — especially about who picks the MacArthur Fellows.

Experts from all fields are invited to submit nominations. The MacArthur staff spends months — sometimes years — investigating each nominee. Then the names and a thick dossier are forwarded to a selection committee of about a dozen members, and their names are also secret.

The officials from the MacArthur Fellowship program explain the secrecy allows voters to be more frank and discourage lobby efforts.

The Board of the Foundation, with members who are in business, academia and other professions, make the final decisions on approving the Fellows.

The lucky winners get $500,000 to be used over four years on anything they want.

While there are no quotas or limits, typically 20 to 30 Fellows are selected each year. Between June of 1981 and September of 2002, 635 Fellows have been named — everyone from artists, poets, choreographers, political analysts, medical researchers and political activists.

Over the years there have been allegations that the MacArthur program has a leftist tilt.

Artist and blacksmith Tom Joyce, 46, is being honored for both his art and his creation of various functional objects. He says the most important criteria for receiving a fellowship is creativity.

Lateefah Simon, 26, is being honored for her creative approach to turning around the lives of young women who have fallen into drug addiction and crime.

Simon is the Executive Director of Center for Young Women's Development (C.Y.W.D) in San Francisco, Calif. It is a grass roots nonprofit organization that promotes economic self-sufficiency, community safety and youth advocacy. Each year, the program trains 2,500 pre- and post-adjudicated young women to become leaders capable of shaping the laws and regulations that affect them.

Participating young women have served on local commissions and policy boards, including the San Francisco Youth Commission, the Juvenile Justice Commission, the Young Women's Health Advisory Committee to the San Francisco Health Commission, and the San Francisco District Attorney's Prostitution Task Force.

Simon and her team have developed one of the nation's first peer-run education, employment and community reintegration programs for post adjudicated and currently incarcerated girls. The education program, which operates inside San Francisco's juvenile hall, is run entirely by formerly incarcerated young women.

And while many MacArthur Fellows have distinguished academic backgrounds, others like Simon, have never finished college.

One of the winners this year is 21-year-old Erik Demaine, the youngest professor ever at MIT. His dad home schooled him before Demaine graduated from college at 12. He received his doctoral degree at 20.

"I like to do a lot of things, most of them in theoretical computer science and algorithms," Demaine says.

Demaine uses techniques like origami paper folding to discover scientific rules. And believe it or not, that discovery could be useful in everything from space exploration, to sheet metal, to understanding how proteins work.

Demaine is one of those MacArthur Fellows who has long been described as a "genius." But it's not a term the MacArthur folks like to use.

Geniuses or not, there are high hopes and great expectations for this year's winners.