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.
“Genius” is also too broad because creativity is only one manifestation of genius. It may be expressed through a range of abilities, such as virtuoso artistic performance or athleticism. We admire prodigies and great athletes, but those are not the attributes we are seeking when we make the award. We are looking for individuals who are engaged in the process of making or finding something new, or in connecting the seemingly unconnected in significant ways. We are looking for people on the precipice of a great discovery or achievement.
2. The selection process is shrouded in secrecy.
We are actually quite open about the process for selecting fellows; it is posted on our Web site.
Each year, the MacArthur Fellows Program invites new nominators — intellectual leaders in their fields — to put forward the most creative people they know. Our staff researches each candidate, collecting examples of the nominee’s work and soliciting the opinions of experts from outside the foundation. An independent selection committee, made up of about a dozen diverse leaders, evaluates the nominations and sends its recommendations to the foundation’s president and board.
To encourage honest evaluations and discussion, nominators, evaluators and selectors all serve anonymously. Their correspondence is kept confidential. We never reveal the names of nominators, evaluators or selection committee members — not even to the fellows.
3. The winners are usually academics and artists.
Fellows come from every field of human endeavor, from theoretical physics to urban farming.
Many fellows, such as sports-medicine researcher Kevin Guskiewicz(2011), are engaged in highly practical work. Guskiewiczis making advances in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of concussions. Others are working on projects whose benefits may not be apparent for many years. Astrophysicist Joseph Taylor, for instance, was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1981, but it was more than 10 years later that his work on pulsars was recognized with a Nobel Prize. Some fellows, such as Rosanne Haggerty (2001), address pressing social issues — in her case, providing housing for homeless individuals and families.
Fellows work across fields and sometimes change fields over time. Jim Kim, a physician and medical anthropologist at the time of his fellowship in 2003, is now president of the World Bank. From 2001 to 2012, 36 percent of the MacArthur fellows came from the arts and humanities, 36 percent from science or social science, and 26 percent worked on social problems such as homelessness, food security and health care.