Published online 23 September 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1124


MacArthur Foundation announces annual grants

Scientists astounded by $500,000 windfalls.

Adam RiessCosmologist Adam Riess is looking forward to the research freedom afforded by a MacArthur grant.MacArthur Foundation

Twenty-five talented, creative individuals got a life-changing telephone call last week from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, telling them they had been selected to receive a US$500,000 MacArthur grant. The programme, which officially announced the grant recipients today, focuses on creative people with a track record of achievement and potential for further success. "This year's group represents those we feel best represent the creativity that we're trying to support," says Mark Fitzsimmons, associate director of the fellows programme.

the2008_Fellows.htm">This year's recipients are still reeling from the phone call, in which the MacArthur representative advises them to sit down, pull the car over and put down anything valuable before divulging the news. "I'm still stunned and amazed," says David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Like other award-winners, he has no concrete plans yet, but hopes the money will support his research into the evolution of landscapes, his writing (he has already penned two books) and his music — Montgomery plays guitar for Seattle band Big Dirt.

Adam RiessGeomorphologist David Montgomery: "stunned and amazed".MacArthur Foundation

Since 1981, the MacArthur Foundation, based in Chicago, has awarded grants to more than 700 people. Fellows can use the funds, disbursed over five years, in any way they wish; the foundation doesn't even ask.

Half a million dollars may not be a huge amount in the budget of a research lab. "In the sciences in particular, it's not necessarily the money that makes a difference," Fitzsimmons says. "It's the recognition." The cash might fund a pilot study or travel costs to collaborate with other scientists, Fitzsimmons says. The grant also allows researchers to pursue topics that are a bit unconventional. "Scientists these days are trained only to think about projects that are fundable, or even funded," says 2008 grant-winner Rachel Wilson, an experimental neurobiologist who studies olfactory systems at Harvard Medical School. "It's very surprising to have it work the other way around — thinking backwards is a new thing."

Rachel WilsonNeurobiologist Rachel Wilson is looking forward to working out what to do with the grant.MacArthur Foundation

Recipient Adam Riess, a cosmologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, says the grant will probably provide him with a little more freedom in his research. For example, he has considered designing a special telescope filter — "like 3D glasses" — that will make supernovae, his topic of study, stand out. Last month, funding the idea seemed unlikely. Today, with money no longer an issue, he might choose to pursue the project.

Some recipients say it will take time to determine the best plan for their bucks. "It's hard to think about, actually," Wilson says. But she has some idea of what to expect: an acquaintance, neurobiologist Lu Chen at the University of California, Berkeley, received the call in 2005. "I've seen a lot of smiles on her face since then," Wilson says. 

Read more about the fates of previous MacArthur Fellows in our feature article, Science prizes: Best in class.

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