What is a Genius Grant?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

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.

Discovering the patterns and attributes of humpback whale song earned a zoologist a genius grant.
Discovering the patterns and attributes of humpback whale song earned a zoologist a genius grant.

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.

Genius grants are awarded to mathematicians and others.
Genius grants are awarded to mathematicians and others.

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.

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.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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I've met one person who has received a MacArthur genius grant. He was one of my college English professors, and he had just published a novel that became really popular. He was also involved in a lot of local arts programs, and he spent some of his spare time tutoring at-risk teens. If anyone deserved recognition and financial support, it was him.

He told me that the MacArthur Foundation representative told him he could use the money for any purpose, not just to work on another novel or anything academic. He did take a year off from teaching to pursue some of his other interests, but he donated a lot of that grant money to the local community theater.


I'm not going to mention his name, but I remember hearing about a young bluegrass mandolin player who received one of those MacArthur Foundation genius grants a few years ago. He is definitely one of the best instrumentalists I've ever heard, but I don't know if I'd place his talent above other musicians out there.

He said in an interview that his phone rang one day and the voice on the other end told him he had just been awarded a MacArthur grant. It was for a substantial amount of money, too. He thought someone was pulling a practical joke on him. His agent had no idea he was under consideration, either. Apparently someone connected to the organization heard him perform somewhere and decided he could use the recognition and financial support.

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