On Wednesday, the new class of MacArthur Fellows — known to the world as the “genius grant” winners — will be announced. Each year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation identifies 20 to 30 exceptionally creative individuals with the potential for important work and provides them with financial support, freeing them to pursue their most innovative ideas. These fellows will receive $625,000 each, up from $500,000 in years past, to spend as they see fit. No one can apply, and no one knows if they are being considered. We don’t want to spoil the surprise, but we can separate fact from fiction about the program.
1. You have to be a genius to win it.
The foundation does not use the name “genius” grant; the news media coined that nickname in 1981, when we announced our first class of fellows, and it stuck.
Yet, “genius” is both too narrow and too broad to describe MacArthur Fellows. It’s too narrow because the word connotes someone with great academic success or a high score on a standardized test. The fellows exhibit more than intellectual prowess. They include people like Ruth Lubic (a 1993 fellow), a nurse-midwife who helped establish birth centers delivering personalized care for low-income women, and Rueben Martinez (2004), who used his barbershop to promote literature in Latino communities.