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The trouble with genius grants

Did Tim Berners-Lee really need a MacArthur Fellowship? Or was there a less accomplished computer scientist who needed it more?
Did Tim Berners-Lee really need a MacArthur Fellowship? Or was there a less accomplished computer scientist who needed it more?
Paul Clarke
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The latest crop of MacArthur "genius" grant awardees — announced by the MacArthur Foundation on Tuesday — is tough to nitpick. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who since last year has produced two epochal Atlantic cover stories on racial injustice and a best-selling book on race in America, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose musical Hamilton is generating more buzz than any Broadway production in years, were probably the two most recognizable of the 24 selected this year.

Coates and Miranda are doing incredible work, and their recognition is well-deserved. But it does raise a question about the MacArthur Foundation's intended purpose in issuing the grants. The organization has always said that it seeks to find and support artists, scientists, and other thinkers on the verge of great accomplishments. And yet it keeps awarding fellowships to brilliant people who've already made it.

Discovering geniuses or rewarding discovered ones?

The thinking about what exactly MacArthur grants are supposed to do has always been scattershot. In practice, grants are awarded based on, as the New York Times's Felicia Lee puts it, "accomplishment and potential." But that's not what the MacArthur Foundation uses as its stated criteria. Sure, it looks for "exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement," but the award is explicitly not supposed to be a reward for that achievement. It's more of a bet on that achievement signaling better things to come. "The MacArthur Fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award," the foundation writes. "We are looking for individuals on the precipice of great discovery or a game-changing idea."

Henry Louis Gates

Henry Louis Gates's MacArthur Fellowship is an example of the program working at its best. (R. Leslie Dalmore)

The list of past grantees suggests this happens sometimes — and when it does, the foundation's prescience is striking. Take the members of the first fellows' class, in 1981. Cormac McCarthy had written four novels before receiving the grant, but the ones that would make his name — Blood MeridianAll the Pretty HorsesThe Road — all came after. Henry Louis Gates was an assistant professor at Yale when he got the award, and went on to become a massively important public intellectual. Michael Woodford — now the world's greatest monetary economist — got the grant while 26 and still in grad school. Stephen Wolfram, inventor of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, got the award at 21.

But far more common in the fellowship, in 1981 and afterward, are established academics, activists, and writers whose best work was already behind them. Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King's Men a full 35 years before his grant. Stephen Jay Gould had already developed his theories of evolutionary spandrels and punctuated equilibrium, and become a prominent public intellectual through his war on sociobiology and his column in Natural History. Richard Rorty had become perhaps the most famous philosopher in America two years prior to his grant, with his Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature. David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest the year before his grant. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web eight years before his. Andrew Wiles proved Fermat's last theorem four years before his. Marion Wright Edelman was perhaps the major outside player in debate over national child care in the early 1970s — more than a decade before her award.

You can't really defend these kinds of grants on "investing in potential" grounds. These people had already made it. Gould, Wiles, and Rorty were tenured academics with a guaranteed income for life at the time of their awards. Warren and Wallace were accomplished enough writers to comfortably get by.

In certain cases — activists like Edelman, for example, or scientific researchers in expensive labs — you can justify the awards as funding future work in the vein of past achievements, even if they're already established. But in plenty of others, that justification makes no sense. The research of mathematicians like Wiles or philosophers like Rorty consists in reading and thinking powerful thoughts; funding isn't really a limitation. In 2012, Chris Thile — formerly of Nickel Creek, which had one platinum and one gold record — got a grant. I'm a fan of Thile (Nickel Creek's cover of "Spit on a Stranger" is great), but I can't imagine he was the folk musician most in need of financial support in 2012.

Chris Thile — great musician, somewhat bizarre MacArthur Fellow.

It's absolutely true that the MacArthur Foundation is exceptionally good at identifying supremely talented and interesting people and giving them money. And I suppose providing some kind of monetary incentive for "genius" (a term the foundation rejects) is valuable. But I doubt the marginal impact of an award given to a couple dozen talented people who are already accomplished and well-known in their fields is significant. By contrast, the effect of identifying Henry Louis Gates or Michael Woodford ahead of time and subsidizing their work could be considerable.

MacArthur Fellowships at their best. Sort of.

Charlie Kaufman's 2008 film Synecdoche, New York is, in its own messed up way, a great, fictional portrait of what the grant can do at its best. The lead, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a theater director who uses his MacArthur Fellowship to create his magnum opus, a full-scale recreation of his own life in a warehouse in Manhattan. It's a project that would have been impossible without that funding and one that, while driving him to a certain kind of madness, represented the best work of his life. Funding the most significant work of someone's career, however bizarre, is a more valuable purpose for the grants to serve than giving a $625,000 thumbs up to people who are already famous and accomplished.

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