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What Is a Genius Grant?

Discovering the patterns and attributes of humpback whale song earned a zoologist a genius grant.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 April 2014
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A genius grant is a term commonly used to describe the award given to inductees of MacArthur Fellows program. The genius grant, which has been given out annually since 1981, is a slightly mysterious award that gives accepted nominees financial support in hopes of stimulating and encouraging their careers. Winners of the MacArthur fellows grant come from many different walks of life and fields of study, and have included poets, playwrights, molecular biologists, anthropologists, mathematicians, and composers, among many others.

The MacArthur foundation is a large, Chicago-based organization that offers a number of grant programs. The founders, John and Catherine MacArthur, were an extremely successful married couple who created the organization to support creativity in many areas. Although most grants offered by the MacArthur Foundation are awarded through a lengthy application and review process, the genius grant process is somewhat more complex.

The process for receiving a genius grant is somewhat elusive to the outside observer. A nominating board of about 100 experts suggests possible candidates to receive the grant. The board whittles the nominees down to a number of recipients, generally between 20-40 individuals. Winners are notified by telephone and usually have no prior knowledge of their nomination. According to the MacArthur Foundation, winners are informed that the financial reward is given to support continued creativity and excellence, but is not based on specific past accomplishments or given with the expectation of later recompense.

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The term, “genius grant” comes from common usage and is not the preferred term of the MacArthur Foundation. Although recipients are usually recognized as exceptional talents in their fields, the grant is not based on IQ tests or any form of intelligence measure. This can lead to some confusion, as some recipients have commented that they are expected to be superior at everything from theoretical physics to board games, even if their genius grant was given in recognition of skill as a choreographer.

Winners of the genius grant offered by the MacArthur Foundation have an extraordinary record of success and achievement. Past recipients have included film maker John Sayles, whose celebrated work as a screenwriter and director spans several decades and many genres. Robert Payne, a noted zoologist and conservationist who discovered the pattern and attributes of humpback whale song, received a genius grant in 1984. In 2006, one MacArthur fellow was physician D. Holmes Morton, a doctor devoted to the improvement of children’s medicine and already well-known for his studies on the genetic diseases of children in Amish and Mennonite communities.

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