MLTalks: Explaining the MacArthur Fellowship

MLTalks: Explaining the MacArthur Fellowship


Welcome to ML Talks and for those of you who are watching on the stream, you can, and actually for anybody here as well, you can ask questions or make comments on Twitter with the hashtag MLTalks and we’re gonna be trying a new question comment app. Go to, the website’s slido.com and it will ask you for a code number which is hash or pound N734 and this will let you send messages to someone here who will project the messages onto the display but today’s guest is Cecilia Conrad and we worked together, I’m on the board of the MacArthur Foundation and a lot of people ask me how do I get the Fellowship or am I ever gonna get the Fellowship or why didn’t I get a Fellowship, I deserve a Fellowship, and everybody asks me all these questions and then also some people have this sort of mistaken idea that it’s a super secret thing and so I’m always answering questions about the MacArthur Fellows and so I decided the best thing to do was to have Cecilia come and explain and sort of that’s sort of shrouded in mystery, the MacArthur Fellowship program. So, Cecilia runs the program at the MacArthur Foundation and she’s been there running it for the last, I think five years, and she’s one of my favorite people at the MacArthur Foundation, so I’m very happy to have Cecilia Conrad. (applauding) Well, hello and thank you for having me. I wanna start, just a moment, I’m working on the assumption that most of you who are here are familiar with the MacArthur Fellows program. Is that an accurate assumption? Sort of? Okay. So, the MacArthur Foundation each year identifies 20 to 25 exceptionally creative individuals and gives them a Fellowship, five year Fellowship, 125,000 a year, no strings attached. There’s no reporting, you can do with the money whatever you want to do. The Fellowship is unusual because you can’t apply for it and ideally you don’t even know that we’re looking at you. Just one day, someone, that’s me, calls you up, begins the conversation with this is Cecilia Conrad from the MacArthur Foundation, are you some place you can have a confidential conversation? That will be your clue. (laughing) Now, I wanted to give you just an overview of the program and this video. I am a visual artist. I’m a historian. My work helps farm workers protect their fundamental human rights in the fields. I’m a play write. Computer scientist. I’m an artist working in photography and video. I’m a mathematician. I study undocumented migration from a variety of perspectives. I’m a musician, songwriter. I am a journalist. A social justice organizer. Theater artist. I bring communities together to be a source for health, wellness, and healing in the inner city. Fiction writer and cultural critic. A landscape architect. I try to learn how to see the world. I’m a psychologist. A historian of East Africa. Diner and urban planner. Computer scientist. An opera director and producer. I am an improviser, composer. An immunologist. I am a writer. (soft music) So, what you’ll see from that video is that we look for creativity in every space. We try to have the program reflect the depth and breath of American creativity. So, each year the class, we like to think of the class as a bouquet, will have a breath of fields represented from the arts to the sciences to people engaged in public issue work and there will also have a breath of individuals, people who were born outside of the US, people who were born inside of the US, and later on I’ll give you some more statistics about the program overall. But before I continue, I wanna just give you a little bit of story of how I got what I truly believe is the coolest job in the world. Years ago, about six or seven years ago, no, maybe about 10 years ago, time flies, I was sitting at my desk at Pomona College, minding my own business when the telephone rang and the person at the other end said, hi, this is Dan Sokoloff from the MacArthur Foundation. My heart skipped a beat. Now, I will confess, it only skipped a tiny beat because I just really never thought of myself as in the running for MacArthur Fellowship but one never stops hoping. Then the next words out of his mouth were, I am not calling you to tell you you’ve gotten a MacArthur Fellowship. (laughing) But what he did do was he offered me an opportunity to participate in the selection process, to join the Secret Selection Committee, and I’m only allowed to tell you this because of my current job that I was on that Secret Selection Committee, and it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever, I’ve had. It was as if I had gone back to college where I had to take courses in many, many different subjects ranging from literature to physics except I didn’t have to take any exams but I would spend the day reading, you know, listening to opera or doing some kind of reading about, trying to learn about quantum physics or things like that and so, at the end of my term on the committee, before I left, I turned to Dan and I said to him, one day I want your job and I want your apartment. He has this really great Chicago apartment right on the lake. Could not get him to give me the apartment but when he was retiring, I heard about the opportunity and decided it was time to make the shift from academia into the MacArthur Foundation. So, it’s been this amazing experience and the program itself is really iconic in the US, it still remains unique. We did a review of the program in 2012 and what we found about it is that we, the review was kind of interesting because it really looked at three different groups. First it looked at the Fellows themselves and asked them what their experience of the Fellowship had been. Not surprisingly, they all really liked the money. You know, they all said the money’s great but we also heard that it allowed them to increase their opportunity for creativity and it also allowed them to take some risk and we’ve seen lots of different ways in which the Fellows have actually put the money to work. Some Fellows have set it aside in a pot because they anticipated that one day they wanted to do some research that NIH or NSF or any of the traditional funders wouldn’t be willing to fund. Other Fellows, particularly in the Arts, have used it to cut back on the sort of freeway warrior jobs, the riding from place to place to teach a creative writing course here or to get creative writing course there in order to allow them more time to practice their art. There are fellows who have taken the money and given it away themselves either by creating scholarship funds, Fellowship funds, sometimes in their own fields, sometimes in places further away is one Fellow who set up a program to provide sabbaticals for family caregivers, so, we’ve seen a variety of uses to which they have put them a funds including paying off student loans and childcare. The second audience was what we called influentials. Influentials were defined as people who were in fields where we traditionally give the Fellowships who’ve been in possessions where they were likely to have come across Fellows in the past and we asked them what do you think of when you think of a MacArthur Fellow? And this word cloud on the bottom of the screen here gives you a sense of the answers that we got with creative being the word that stands out, the largest, and then innovative really close to that. Now, when we think about creativity, we have a specific definition. We see creativity as the ability to create something new, the ability to connect the seemingly unconnected in unexpected ways, the ability to kind of connect across disciplines. In fact, one of the things we’ve observed is that many of our Fellows come from interdisciplinary backgrounds. Someone may have been an English major in college who took a neuroscience course her senior year to fulfill a distribution requirement, fell in love with it, and that became the career that the person pursued. We found dancers who become scientists and scientists who’ve become authors and fiction writers. So, that interdisciplinary aspect is one of the things we’ve observed. And then the last group, and this is one that really kind of excited me when I first heard this, and that is, we had this group called the Engaged Public and the Engaged Public was defined as people who read a newspaper every day and who intended to vote in the next presidential election. So it’s kind of a fairly loose phrase for the engaged public. What we found is over half of the engaged public were knowledgeable about the Fellows Program and they reported it, 10% reported that hearing about the Fellows Program made them think about their own work and how they could do more to contribute to society and 10% reported that the Fellows Program made them willing to take more risk to advance their own creativity so that inspirational part of the program, we can add to the general idea behind it, which is to enable highly creative people to do more in the future. So, what I promised to do was to unrollback the curtain a bit and tell you about the selection process, and as Joey noted earlier, people always think oh, you’re so secret, it’s a black box, nobody knows how they pick the Fellows. In fact, if you go to our website, it’s all there, how we pick the Fellows, we just don’t give any names, we’re just, we’re transparent and secret at the same time, if that’s possible. So, the selection process begins with nominations. Each month, we ask between 100 and 200 new people to submit nominations for the Fellows Program. We try to reach a broad swath of the population, we try to identify people who exist at what we think of as the nodes of networks where they’re in a position to be able to spot what’s new and exciting and developing across all of the fields that we look at. The nominations come in to my office, and our staff of roughly 10 people engages in triage. Every nomination gets read by at least two of us and we don’t do some research about that individual. This is something about the program that has changed over time because in the early days of the program we didn’t have Google, we didn’t have all of the online certi, facilities and so the program actually used to have paid scouts whose job it was to go out and search out these people and identify them but now, thanks to the fact that almost everything you wanna know about people, including their China pattern when they got married, is online, we can do a lot of that search from our desk. We then identify the nominations that seem most promising for immediate development. The nominations that we don’t immediately develop kinda stay alive in a holding bin. One of the things that is noteworthy about the Fellows Program is the nominations never dies. We are constantly on the lookout, once someone has been nominated we kinda always have a little bit of peripheral vision to try and keep an eye on what that person is doing. So, at the moment we have a datbase of roughly 20,000 names of people who’ve been nominated that are constantly, possibly gonna come up for the Fellowship in one year. Once we’ve decided to develop a file, we then go out and look for external reviewers. We have two forms of external review: one is that we go out and we find people in their field or in their adjacent field, and ask them to write a letter about them. The other is that we read their papers, we sneak in to see their concerts, we go to the plays, we go to the shows, this is why it’s the coolest job in the world. I got to go to Hamilton, when Hamilton first opened and I got to call it work. (laughing) One of my favorite stories, though, about trying to sneak into things is not long after I came to the foundation we were looking at Kyle Abraham, who is a MacArthur Fellow, I believe from 2013 class, and I went to see his true performance, his choreography at a really off-the-beaten-track theater in Washington DC and I thought to myself, okay this is, no one will know who I am, this won’t be a problem. I walk in the door, somebody hands me a program and says, what are you doing here professor Conrad? It was one of my former students. So we don’t always get to be a secret, I understand that my predecessor apparently used to wear wigs. I don’t know if that’s true, I would love to have seen a picture but I haven’t tried that yet, although I do still have a collection of wigs from high school. I went through the Angela Davis phase. Okay, then once we’ve gotten the evaluation process, we actually, we do an extensive outreach for evaluation. Once, by the time someone’s gotten the Fellowship, they have roughly a median of 40 external letters of review, so this is like super charged tenure file and probably the most amazing thing about this is that when I make that phone call to a MacArthur Fellow and tell them they’ve gotten the Fellowship. It is rare. Less than 1% of the cases did they have any idea we were looking at them. This is after we’ve talked to 40 different people about them overall, it’s kind of amazing. We develop the file and then we take it to that Secret Selection Committee, the Secret Selection Committee looks at the files twice, they do a first round cut and then they finally make recommendations. At every stage of the process, we continue to engage in due diligence to learn more about the Fellow overall and the Selection Committee then makes a recommendation to our board and it’s the board who approves the selection of each class of Fellows. So, just to give you a little bit of the spice of each one of them, the nominators, we get nominators either by doing our own research, keeping track of who serves on different committees and so on, we also get that we ask for recommendations for nominators. You cannot self-nominate, you also can’t really nominate your brother, your sister, your mother, your daughter-in-law, I’m just naming the ones we’ve gotten. My favorite one, though, was a letter that I read and when I got to the end, the person said I might be biased because she’s the mother of my children. Not an acceptable nomination overall by itself. We get those monthly requests, as I said, we send out for about 200 of them and it yields about 1500 people nominated each year ’cause they’re duplicates, some people are nominated multiple times. Our evaluators, we do kind of a combination of, first of all, looking at people who we know might be in the immediate orbit, in a very close to the field of the nominee. We also look at people who are in adjacent fields to the nominee, we look at people who are sort of thought-leaders in the general discipline and so we kind of start out and work our way closer in as we start to develop the file overall. Some people will, if they’ve gotten any requests for an evaluation, will write back and say, well I can’t write an evaluation for this person because and they’ll name some relationship which might disqualify you for writing a letter for a 10-year review process or even perhaps doing a proposal review for one of the federal agencies. But for our program, because we’re collecting such a wide spectrum of reviews, people can be fairly close and still participate in the process. We just use that information about proximity as we look at with a content of the letter is and the Secret Selection Committee is an interdisciplinary committee drawn from multiple sectors. I’ve given you just a sense of the distribution as it is graphic but we have people who are academics, we have people who are not academics, people involved in the nonprofit sector, people involved in the for-profit sector, we try to get a mix of people on the committee, they have staggered terms and they have staggered terms because what we have found is that if the committee stays together too long, they start to see the world the same way and you start to have, and this is particularly true when looking in the Arts fields, you start to get a group aesthetic that is reflected in every class. So, we have found that by shifting the Selection Committee, by shaking it up periodically, the average term is somewhere between three and five years. We can bring fresh ideas, fresh perspectives, and different ways of looking at the world. So, I wanted to talk about four things about the program and then I’m going to give you some numbers and then open this up for anything you’ve wanted to know about the program overall. The first is no strings attached. I mention that at the outset, there’s no reporting required. The history of this is kind of interesting. The Fellows Program is actually one of the oldest programs at the MacArthur Foundation. MacArthur Foundation just celebrated, it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Fellows Program is 36 years old and there’s a lot of lore behind the history of the program but what I’ve been able to piece together are the following two things: a convergence of ideas between two sides of the original board of the foundation that rarely found convergence. On the one hand, there was a physician in Houston, Texas, his name was Birch, and he had written the paper called In Defense of Venture Research, and the paper argued that there should be some space for research funding to support mainly people in the sciences who were doing research that didn’t immediately have an application either in medicine or engineering or energy or some industrial application and he had given this paper to one of the board members to read who thought this was an inspiring idea. On the other side, we had the son of the MacArthur’s, so, MacArthur’s, when they set up the MacArthur Foundation, gave no instructions about how the money should be spent. So, the foundation has actually been able to define what its priorities going to be on its own but their son had wanted to be a writer and had been frustrated by the fact that, as a writer, he didn’t necessarily have a means to support himself ’cause his parents apparently weren’t that interested in him being a writer and that there should be some space for artist to be able to have a source of support to pursue their creativity. So, the meeting of those two minds came together to create the MacArthur Fellowship and the idea being that no-strings-attached, you’re not beholden to the market, you’re not beholden to your teaching responsibilities, there’s an opportunity to do something risky or new and we have adhere to that pretty strenuously. Early in the program, we used to have that phone call, Dan would call you up and he’d say, and this is the only phone call you’ll ever get from us and then we would send a package in the mail for them to fill out their forms in order to have their checks mailed and we may never have to talk to them again. That was the way the program, we took that no string as no strings. We are a little more engaging now, partly because in this 2012 review, we found that the Fellows were interested in having more engagement with the foundation and more engagement with each other and they, oh, we also found that calling someone up and telling them you’re a MacArthur Fellow and we’re going to start sending you checks and then not giving them any forewarning about what was about to happen to their lives was a little cruel. So, now we call up and we say, you may wanna talk to us again in a day or so, here’s the number you can call back. It’s always entertaining, though, because sometimes, first of all, in modern day situations, people don’t answer the phone. Right? So, we have to engage in all kinds of trickery, sometimes it’s just harassment, I just keep dialing the number over and over again and if you have your, you know, where you sometimes can get your cellphone number, if you start seeing a number over and over again on your cellphone, eventually you pick up ’cause you’re just curious and then when you pick up, you’re really annoyed and I just love that. (laughing) All right, we also follow people on Twitter. One of our Fellows who tweets everything about his life shared that he had just landed in LA and he was on his way to Umami Burger. So, we called him and asked how the burger was and without, before I even said who I was, and he proceeded to tell me about the burger, I’m like you don’t know who I am, wait a second. So, range of things here. All right, secrecy. As I said, we’re pretty transparent about what the process is, I’ve pretty much just laid it out here for you but we’re secret about the participants in the process. Nominators are asked never to reveal that they were nominators. Evaluators are asked never to reveal that they wrote an evaluation. The Selection Committees identity, besides me, and one early selector who likes to tell people at cocktail parties, I can’t stop him, is a secret and why do we do that? Well, first of all, we think it encourages frank evaluations from our evaluators, it protects our Selection Committee and our Nominators from being lobbied, and then it also gives our Selection Committee some freedom to take some risk. I tell the Selection Committee, you know, if you pick someone and it seems crazy, the only one who’s gonna get the blow back is me. So, go ahead, occasionally pick someone that people might say that’s a crazy idea and see what happens. The Fellowship Program is sometimes known as the Genius Grant. How many of you have heard that phrase to describe the program? Now, we have never used that to call it, to describe the program. Early in the days of the program when it was first started, a New York Times article labeled it the Genius Grant. Now, I will admit it’s kind of a love/hate relationship, people know Genius Grant so I will use it when I’m out talking and people don’t know what the project is but there are many reasons why we’ve avoided that label genius. First of all, people tend to associate genius with a really narrow definition of kind of academic powers or even the ability to test well on a particular test and we think creativity means so much more than that. Among our MacArthur Fellows, is a nurse practitioner who is has developed a midwifery program that’s done a lot to increase the, reduce the infant mortality rate in Washington DC. Among our Fellows is someone who makes paper using, restoring kind of historical techniques of paper making. It’s a range of kinds of things that don’t neatly fit under this notion of geniuses doing well on a particular test. Geniuses also, in some ways, as I said too narrow, sometimes it’s too broad a kind of concept. Sometimes I just jokingly note genius can be evil. Creativity is all about producing something of value and worth that advances human society. One of our Fellows, Yuval Sharon, I think he’s class of 2017, yes, Yuval Sharon is an opera producer who might be best known for having produced an opera in LA that took place in limousines. Limousines? Come on. (laughing) But he just wrote a piece that’s in the Los Angeles Review of Books and I recommend it for those who are interested, who talks about how genius can also kind of be a paralyzing label. We have found that when we talk to nominators, if they think that we’re looking for genius, they can’t come up with names. If we think that they’re looking for creativity, they start to have ideas about who might fit that and that connects to the last point here and that is that one of our criteria is that we’re looking for exceptionally creative individuals where the Fellowship might enable them to do more. I sometimes think of this as we’re looking at people, if you think about their kind of creativity as a parabola, we want them right before they get to the top of that parabola, on the precipice. So, it may be that we haven’t universally acclaimed them as genius because what the work that may get them labeled as genius is yet to come and the Fellowship gives them space to do that. That’s what we’re looking for. It’s not a Nobel, it’s not a Lifetime Achievement Award, we’re looking for people on their way up. Now that said, I will admit that sometimes the speed at which they move outpaces us. I mentioned Hamilton earlier. When we started looking at Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton was not the event it’s become, the phenomenon it’s become. When we started looking at Ta-Nehisi Coates, his book that made him the big name wasn’t supposed to be published until October, we announced in September, we were ready to look really smart, then the publisher moved the publication date up ’til July and there we were. So, sometimes one can argue we’ve reached people, maybe past, well, hopefully they still have peaks to come off into the future but that’s what we’re looking for. So, before I turn to open to questions, I just wanted to give you some numbers about the program to give you a sense of it. The first is when the Fellows Program, probably the first 10, 15 years of the Fellows Program, the Fellows were clearly Fellows. If you look on this left hand, I’ve done the ratio, the solid line is one to one, men to women, and you’ll see for the first years of the program, it was an overwhelmingly male set of selectors, I mean, of Fellows. This, an article came out in the newspaper that kind of reported on this data and it’s, you know, I’m an economist by training, so I know that data gets attention and that got the program’s attention and what we found is that by being much more conscientious about opening up the nominator process, that you naturally end up with a more diverse group of Fellows and so now the Fellows classes have been roughly half and half as you can see when we move towards the future if you average it out over time On the right hand side is the age distribution. When we invite nominators to nominate, and we’ve tried wording this lots of different ways, first we said please consider people under 40. Nominators would write back and say, well, you’re being agist. So, we stopped saying under 40. We said please consider people early in their careers. What I really wanna do is to draw the parabola and show that like I want people here in their process. You’ll see that, in general, the Fellows have been in their 40s as the model group followed by the 30 to 39, which is somewhat encouraging. The oldest Fellow was 86 at the time of the Fellowship and the youngest was 19. So, everyone here can take heart. And then the other aspect of the Fellows Program, we spent some time really trying to look at the geography of Fellows and what I have mapped here is the geography at the time of the award and it’s probably not a surprising picture but it’s one we’re always trying to push against and that is that there is a concentration of Fellows on the east coast, New York and Massachusets in particular, and on the west coast in California and that they’re, particularly once you get to some of the Midwest, there are states with zero Fellows ever having been located there. We’ve been making an effort to get out and talk about the Fellows Program in geographies that are underrepresented. I went out and spent some time at the University of Nebraska, gave a talk, met lots of people, invited people to nominate, and came back and then we announced the class of Fellows and the headline in the Lincoln newspaper was Director Visits, Still No Fellows in Nebraska. So, you know, every year I keep, fine, I’m gonna get that Nebraska Fellow overall. We also looked at where people were born and what we found is that that is much more geographically dispersed and that Fellows tend to be highly mobile and this corresponds to what we’ve seen about other aspects of the population, that they’re born one place and then they tend to move to the coast. We’ve even seen that with the program where Fellows, for awhile there, there was a real streak. If there was a Fellow who was based at North Western University when we announced, within a year he was at Stanford. So, with that, I wanna open it up to answer any questions about things you wanna know about the Fellows Program. Cecilia. (applauding) Okay, I’m gonna start with my own and then we’ll start integrating other people’s questions and actually, you said that I would know if I was asking a question that I wasn’t supposed, that we weren’t supposed to answer, but I realized some of the questions have information in them that might not be allowed. (laughing) Oh, the question itself is the problem? But like, well, this one I’ll ask it in a way that doesn’t reveal the content but how do, I know, but can we talk about how we decide on how much money we give? So, this is something that has changed over the history of the program. In the early days, there were different amounts depending on how old you were, the amount of the Fellowship got bigger the older you were. And my predecessor, I think, was the one who argued for let’s give a uniform payment and it was set at 100,000 over the five year period. I’m sorry, 100,000 a year, so 500,000 over the five year period. When I arrived, I had seen from the review that there was some notion it was time to review the Fellowship and since part of the motivation was to provide an opportunity for people to escape responsibilities for teaching, particularly those in the Arts, I spent a lot of time looking at average salaries at selective institutions at the associate professor level and that’s a kind of metric I’m kind of watching a benchmark and so we will be reviewing that amount once every five years or so. It’s not as much money if you’re in the sciences except what’s attractive in the sciences are two things: one is that there are no strings attached and the other, and scientists have said this to us, it’s really special to get a Fellowship that you share with people in the Arts and so there’s a kind of special credibility and mystique that’s associated with it they enjoy. One Fellow has said that, he’s a Fellow who’s a musician, said that the Fellowship gives you a chance to have a middle class existence. But it’s kind of been, baseline against bleep you money for associate professors, right? Yes.
Like, we’d be able to say, I’m gonna go do my own thing for five years, I don’t need your stinking money. That’s right, that’s what it’s based, very few people actually do that but they could. Yeah. Actually, some of the questions on here, maybe better than some, I have one last one and then we’ll go to the board but you mentioned that a lot of people are online but a lot of people aren’t and some of the Fellows that I know we’ve given awards to are almost intentionally not very online types. I mean, you still, but how do you make sure that we don’t get bias towards people who are good at social media? Oh, okay. Well, I mean, we don’t just look up the articles that you’ve written in Scholar Google and so on. We also try to really, we try to work our networks. There’s a lot of this that’s networking and snowballing, kind of snowball interviewing. So, I’ll give an example, we had a Fellow a couple of years ago who has a nonprofit in New York that makes adaptable equipment for children with disabilities out of cardboard which has the advantage of being something that is cheap to redo as the child gets bigger and it’s very customized kind of product. So, for that case, it was really hard to create the case without seeing the cardboard and seeing all these things happen and I’m gonna kinda maybe judge, dance along the line of propriety here by telling the story but I just kept connecting with people until I found someone who worked in one of the schools and actually did a video and that is what helped us to be able to understand exactly the nature of this creative activity and so sometimes it’s getting on the ground in areas and just listening and being– And spying.
Spying, yes, and spying. But either way, they probably would be happy that you did. Yes, yeah. So, I don’t know exactly what this first question is but I have a– Have you ever regretted a Fellow? Yeah, I guess it’s regretted that you appointed a Fellow. Yeah. I haven’t. It’s kind of an interesting thing because sometimes we’re asked to talk about what is the impact of the Fellowship? And I guess there’s several pieces that make this difficult. One is that I talked earlier about wanting to take some risk and I sometimes worry when I look at Fellows that maybe we haven’t taken enough risk because if you’re really pushing yourself to take some risk, there should be some that don’t really pan out. What we found is that they’re Fellows who take Fellowship in lots of different ways. Some go on and continue to do what they’ve been doing. You know, they continue to work in the space that they’ve been working in, they continue to produce their academic papers and so on. Some take the Fellowship as a mandate to become much more of a public intellectual, that engaged in policy debates or to become much more active in education and public education and so on. So, we have a former Surgeon General of the US who is a MacArthur Fellow, the head of the World Bank was a MacArthur Fellow, so we have that kind of category and then some just start completely new directions of work as a result of it. I’m not sure I could label any one of those as a success or a failure per se. Right. But it is, I guess you wouldn’t regret it but if you getting them, once they become famous, again, I have to be careful about what I say, but one of the conversations that we often have is about are they already too well known, right? I mean, that’s ’cause, so that’s the thing is, I mean, not to give anybody any specific advice but you should tap your breaks just before September, is that right? Because if… (laughing) It’s already too late, just before September. But I think that’s the interesting thing is that I’ve seen, I think it’s okay to say this, but I’ve seen people on your list that become too famous before you’ve made the decision, I think that, in an interesting way, the quickly ascending stars are the harder ones to catch because you’ve gotta get those 30 or 40 interviews before they make it through the window, showing up as the nomination and then being too late and often I console my colleagues who complained about not having gotten the MacArthur, right? They were just ascending too fast, you know? I’ve had to do that. I mean, the question, I could pose the question the other way, are there people I’ve regretted that we didn’t Fellow? And there are. I mean, I’ve had conversations where I know that we missed our opportunity. And because they were on your list already? Yes. Yeah because that’s the thing that I try to say and it may or may not be true, I try, you explained it’s not like the Nobel Prize but I also, there’s a certain amount of completeness to the Nobel Prize and that they do literally kick themselves if they miss an important contribution but it’s not like for the MacArthur’s Fellow, you might regret it but it’s not like we’re trying to get every creative person that ever comes out, we’re just trying to, like you said, like a bouquet, pick a nice cross section of creative people that should inspire others and we’re not trying to oh shoot, here are the five creative people that we missed in this decade, right? Yeah, right. I mean, one of the challenges with having that bouquet is that different fields have are any one time more creative than others. I mean, we see that sometimes and so, whenever we announce the class, so we’re not gonna necessarily go deep into every field and whenever we announce the class, there’s inevitably some field that’s not in the class that year and I know I’m gonna get a letter. The jazz people watch us constantly. There’s no jazz. And also, that’s because of the number of awards in certain categories, right? The MacArthur is one of the few that you can win for certain categories compared to say the sciences where you have the Fields Medal and the Turing prize and stuff like that. That’s right, that’s right. Certainly I think in the Arts, it is probably one of the more, considered one of the more prestigious prizes. Yeah. By the way, if anybody, yes, do you wanna, you know, but, do we have, are we able to get or should I just repeat that? Repeat, I’ll be quick. International US is only 5%– So, the question is, international, why are we just American? Yeah, that’s right. This one of the eligibility requirements is that you are either a US citizen or US based and we actually spent some time reviewing that requirement recently and decided to keep it that way and we decided to keep it that way for several reasons. One is that we’re not sure we could do as good a job globally with this kind of wide open process that we have of making sure that we weren’t just tapping into the same kind of elite networks within certain countries or societies. Two is that we actually think there’s a bit of, there’s something, there is something peculiarly American about the notion of honoring individual creativity and so it’s a question of how you would think about translating that in other context. What I found is that it’s part of this review, I spent some time talking to people in different parts of the world and we would, I would describe the Fellowship program and they would go yes, we should have something like that but then they would say but only with the requirement that they can’t leave the country, only with the requirement that they do this, only with the requirement that they do that. So, it turns out it was a different Fellowship, it wasn’t the MacArthur Fellowship. So, with that in mind, we haven’t ruled it out forever. We will periodically rereview that decision. I think there’s also a little bit about the bouquet and the class and the attention that it generates that we thought might be weakened if we try to cover too many places at once. Yeah. And I do think it’s interesting that we’re, that you’re trying to but we are suffering from the lack of people in the middle of America and I think, you know, we were, you know, this next year’s the, is it the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo mission and what’s interesting about the NASA program was I think there was a lot of intention to build Centers of Science in middle of America, you know? And I think that was actually even today you think of a lot of NASA people with this kind of southern draw and I think figuring out, maybe, coordinating around this on how to engage and I guess, I guess people end up in the coasts but it is kind of a, it’s, I mean, I know you talked about it a little bit but do you have anything else on the, because the nominators seem to change a lot, the diversity, is that a thing? It hasn’t worked for geography and I think there’s several things at play here. I think one is that we have to work on getting the nominators to understand that we’re not necessarily looking for the same kind of people that were in the class we announced the last time and this is one of the patterns that happens. People are invited to nominate and they go look at last year’s class and they nominate people just like them which then tends to replicate. So, that’s one of the tests. We have been trying to get out more, to different parts of the country, to encourage people to participate in the nominating process and also, we’ve started to think about spaces where we wanna make deep dives to look for nominations in fields that may have stronger representation like crop science in the middle of the country. And so, we’re trying different techniques to see, this is an ongoing kind of, we’re still, we don’t have this right yet, we’re still working on that. And that connects to this question about are there any specific fields or industries you’d like to see more Fellows come out of? Yes. So, I mentioned some of the area in agriculture that I’m particularly interested in. I think we, in the sciences, we tend to be weaker on some of what I think of is more of the applied science kinds of areas, there’s exciting work happening, we had had a long drought without architecture but we had a landscape architect last year, so, we were excited about that. Sometimes when we have spaces that we feel that there’s a lot going on and we’re not kind of tapping into it, we will actually convene panels to give us advice on who the nominators should be and how we reach into that. We’ve done that in the past in children’s literature which resulted in some nominations. I’ve been a little bit happy recently in terms of our music getting more diverse, before it was jazz and classical. We had Rhiannon Giddens this year, not quite sure how you classify here but she’s, you know, did fiddle music, she’s now working on an opera thanks to the Fellowship. So, there are spaces, we are interested in the fields of, you know, as I said, every time we announce and we’re missing fields, I usually get a long list of things that we’ve missed recently. Haven’t had a philosopher in awhile. That’s interesting. And so, this question where it says where can somebody look into the previous Fellow projects had resulted from the foundation? Those are all on the website, right? Yeah well, the Fellows don’t have projects. This is no strings attached and Fellows don’t have to tell us anything at the end of their checks. Many of them will write letters and we also keep, each Fellow has a page and we kinda keep track of what they’re doing on the page, so you can see news articles about them. A recent Fellow whose work has kind of gotten some news and has been engaged with the foundation even beyond the Fellowship is Jennifer Eberhardt who is a social psychologist based out of Stanford who you may have remembered, you may have heard the new stories about the work she did with police interactions and citizens and how polite they were depending on the race and ethnicity of the citizen. This was actually a collaboration with an older MacArthur Fellow, Daniel Jurafsky, who was a linguistics professor there and that’s a kind of example of a project that both the foundation, through some of its other work, helped to fund but also involve two Fellows who probably met each other in part because of the Fellowship. And then this one also is, what would you consider over qualified for a Fellowship? If you’ve already gotten the Nobel Prize, you’re not gonna be getting one of my phone calls. Are there other prizes?
There are some other ones that, you know, that we are, I think, make it seem less likely. All right, so there’s no bright lines. There’s not a bright line for, I think the Nobel is probably a bright line. How about a Fields Medal? A Fields Medal is not. We’ve had Fellows who were at least in the running for Fields.
But I think we remembered talking about are they out or not, right? I mean, it would ask, it starts to tip the scale there. Yeah, I think, you know, some of these very large prizes in the sciences right now like the breakthroughs. Okay, too bad Ed, you’re out. (laughing) Yeah. But it sort of depends, I guess, doesn’t it? It depends, one of the things we ask ourselves about these other Fellowships is to what extent do they constrain what the person can do? Do we think that the direction they’re heading could be changed if they had unfettered support as opposed to support like, for example, for a while we were not so sure about the HHMI which is mainly for biomedical research but for some pl, that actually constrains their research and their research might have applications outside of biomedical and so we really started asking those questions of all the Fellowships. There’s another question which is, have you noticed that the selection pool of the committees criteria changed over your 10 year and is the Fellowship influenced by like zeitgeist. Yes, I think it is influenced by the zeitgeist and hence their argument for continuing to shake up the committee a bit. One of the things that I also think matters on the Selection Committee is getting, not only a diversity of fields, but also some life experiences, different parts of the country, getting that mixed up too and bringing in, I think, you know, and over time I’ve seen this, the program has changed as to how much you have people from outside of the academic sector, from the private sector, from other things. So yes, the committees do get a certain zeitgeist that goes in, the challenge is to make sure that we keep that fresh. So, this is from (speaking foreign language), an alum, how and where do you look for people in fields that don’t yet have a name? Which is probably a lot of people here at the Media Lab. Yeah. Well, we’re always trying to find people we think are at these kind of new spaces, doing something we can’t quite categorize and ask them to nominate. Now, one of the challenges, probably the biggest challenge in people doing things that don’t have a name yet is in finding the people who can evaluate them in a credible way and sometimes that requires us to do some work educating the committee. I liken it to when I was a dean and I used to have to build a tenure file for somebody in a brand new field and all of the possible evaluators were actually junior to them int he field and usually tenure cases require that you have people senior to you in the field and so you have to kind of engage in some education work there that this person is they blazing a path that lots of younger people are following and so that’s what makes it exciting. And I guess you sort of answered this but do you look for people with a proven track record of impressive work or people with obvious potential but not so much output? Let me add a little twist to that, so, on your parabola, again, what’s the earliest that you end up, ’cause you said you gave it to a 19 year old, so how much actual output had that 19 year old had versus how much of it is just confidence on this potential and then what’s that? Not a lot but what they had done was really incredibly impressive which was deciphering some ancient Mayan hieroglyphs that nobody else had done. But we also had a very young person who had been a high school drop out, had gone back, gotten their GED, got involved in a program to try and help teenage mothers kind of get their education back on track, was barely not a teenager herself, had moved, risen to a leadership program and it really transformed the initiative and so, again, somebody who had done a lot in a very short period of time, so it’s a mix. Some people have got quite a bit there, some it’s only one or two things that are really exciting. So, you basically want proof that there’s a trajectory but evidence that they’re not done, basically, right? And there’s two questions that are related, so, other than the money, what does the Fellowship provide to increase the impact of their work which is tied to the other one which is do you feel that providing the Fellows with funding actually inhibits their impact because a lot of creativity comes from adversary? And I heard a rumor that Murray Gell-Mann who is I think involved at some point in some level suggested that we do a control experiment by measuring the output of the people we didn’t give the award to versus, I think we decided that was a bad idea because it would be hard to measure but still, the question is, so, the Fellows have had great output but like you said, they suddenly get surrounded and we know this whole thing about child prodigies having difficulty because they can’t take the risk and the Fellowship does give you freedom because of the money but it also gives you this burden of now your a MacArthur Fellow, say something smart, right? Yeah, yeah. So, let’s see, in terms of beyond the money, as I mentioned, in some fields the money isn’t so much but what we’ve heard is that it gives you credibility, Fellows report getting doors opened either to advance their research or sometimes to apply for new funding opportunity thanks to having been named a Fellow, so, and that getting a voice. One of the stories is Marc Edwards who was disobedience last year, he told a story of he had done some work early on about lead and water in Washington DC and he had a really hard time getting any attention to the problem at all or getting any action on it but he was called in early in the case of Flint, Michigan and he said just the fact that it said Marc Edwards MacArthur Fellow got us publicity and allowed us to actually catch the problem earlier, maybe not early enough but earlier than we might have in some other circumstance. So, there’s a way which there is credibility that’s provided to him. We also periodically try to bring the Fellows together because sometimes some exciting things happen when people meet cross fields ’cause one of the things that’s unusual about the ward is that you can meet across disciplines and there’d been some collaborations that have stated to emerge out of that. In terms of the issue of adversity, there are, Fellows tell us that there can be a moment of feeling a little frozen, particularly with the genius label, that it can be a burden. Some people say that the fact that it’s no strings actually is the biggest burden they’ve ever felt about getting a fellowship ’cause they feel like they really have to do something important and contribute to society. I haven’t heard anyone who said, and we would allow them to do this, please keep the money because, you know, I need adversity to succeed, no one’s said that yet. (laughing) That is interesting. I mean, I think even though that, but just because the name does provide that sort of gravitas, I could imagine for some people that they might, you know, I could imagine some people might have a harder time because you have the responsibility of being a MacArthur Fellow but I guess it’s hard to measure that, isn’t it? It’s hard, it’s hard. And people have talked to us about encountering some jealousy in their fields, at least I’ve heard two Fellow’s say they thought it was harder for their papers to get published, that they were subject to greater scrutiny. They’ve said that but then they’ve concluded but yeah, it was still better to get it than that. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Now, that makes sense. Does the Selection Committee lobby for favorite candidates? No. Well, let me phrase it this way, because if I interpret the question as they have, you know, their favorite student or person they know or it’s something like that, no. People do fall in love with candidates. In the process, yeah.
In the process but it is a community, it’s a consensus building, it’s being in a seminar where there’s lots of give and take and conversation and people ask tough hard questions but you do, and, you know, the other thing about the program is even the staff, we develop, we each take files to develop to bring to the committee and we bring about double the number of files as there will be Fellowships, so we know going in that half of our files, at least, are not gonna get through and yet whenever we leave the committee meeting, we’re really sad. So, it’s hard not to fall in love with these incredible people. Is it okay to say that I get to see the list sometimes? Yes. And it is sad, even, for us, we’re not very involved in the process to see people and then like root for them and then, but it’s, but then you look at all the people who win and it makes you feel good. And people sometimes come back. Yes, that’s true. You know, as I said, ’cause nominations never die, so. Have you ever been unable to reach somebody on the phone? I mean, I’m unable to reach people in the Media Lab on the phone sometimes, I mean. There have been some really, so, there’s a historical case, before people had cellphones, I’ve heard this is true that there was a Fellow who was sitting in a cafe in Italy and saw in the International Herald Tribune that they had been named a Fellow. I’m not sure they would let me name the person, the Fellow, now without having told them ahead of time ’cause technically they could say no but I guess back then, they just– You end up in a Jesse, Bob Dylan situation. Yeah, right, right, right. I have had, I’ve had to engage in some real trickery. I’ve invented conferences that I wanted people to attend, we’ve setup appointments for fake graduate students, we have, my most recent Fellow who was most persistent, so this was a Fellow who’s based in Chicago and I tried to call him, call him, call him, he would not answer the phone. I sent him text message and he said well can’t we just text each other? Like, no, no, I really need to talk to you in person, it’s really, really important that I talk to you in person and so finally he said well, I really don’t like talking on the phone so I said why don’t we meet for coffee? So, I got him, I came up with a whole story that I needed to consult with him on another Fellow nomination and I really needed his advice on it. So, he met me, but he decided to meet at this restaurant that had communal tables so I thought okay, I’m not gonna be able to say it to him, so I made a folder and I made the folder look like it was a file for a candidate and I put the front page of the folder said Congratulations and then the second page said You Are MacArthur Fellow. So, we sat down, I said here’s the file I want your opinion on and I passed it over to him and he opened it and he looked at it and then he closed it and looked at me like (laughing) that was fun. That was.
I wish I could do that more frequently. And actually, it’s one of my favorite things about being on the board is I get to, am I allowed to say this too? I get to listen in… Oh yes, yes, yeah. So, say somebody calls on a speaker phone and a number of us get to sit around and first of all it’s wonderful but some of the things you have to go through to get them on the phone is also and then the people who like don’t believe you and hang up and so. Oh, yeah, yeah. And you also hear people Googling or they’ll hang up and say I gotta call you back and you know they’re trying to check the number. They’re people you ask, are you some place you can have a confidential conversation? And they say yes. And then you proceed to tell them, they say, oh wait a minute, let me leave this lunch table I’m at with a bunch of people (laughing) so that I can really talk. So, I’m like, so you weren’t really some place you could have a confidential conversation were you? We’ve got people on freeways and I’ve asked them to pull off, take the next exit and find a safe place to stop. My predecessor called a Fellow that we knew had a new baby and asked her if she was holding it and suggested she put it down. And then he told her the news and she said really thank you for making me put the baby down. (laughing) And then the hard part is that they have to keep it a secret. Yes. For a number of months. They have to keep it secret for several weeks, not months. Wouldn’t last months. Several weeks. And they can tell one person? They’re allowed to tell one person, yeah. And you usually recommend it’s their spouse if they have one, right? Well, sometimes they ask, you know, do you think it should be my spouse? And I suggested yes, that might be a good idea. Sometimes it’s their mother. It’s, you know, one Fellow told his newborn twins. I told him he could tell the two of them. (laughing) That’s great. And the convening of the Fellows, that happened since you got back, right? ‘Cause Don was really kind of against– Well, what happened was, here’s what happened, so what happened was we used to have, as part of the Fellowship, there used to be biannual reunion of Fellows and all of the Fellows and their families were invited to come together and these were amazing events, I’ve heard people tell stories of it but you can just do the math, right? You know, we’ve been naming Fellows since 1981, roughly 20 to 25 each class and so these events were completely just too big, you couldn’t really manage them anymore and so we started having smaller gatherings of Fellows that were more curated and they tried different forms of curation, sometimes they got Fellows in the same, like all the jazz musicians together or all the writers together. Sometimes they did them other ways. We decided when I came, because i had heard so much from past Fellows that they missed these big reunions to experiment with a larger event. So we periodically have what we call a forum where we invite all the Fellows to attend, just everyone who was ever a Fellow, we don’t invite the families, but I had done some analysis of the previous events and realized that I could kinda do it like airlines do and invite everybody with the expectation that only a certain percentage were gonna show up and that’s worked well. We’ve done that, we did it a few years ago, we’re about to have another one this fall so we have first come first serve and a cap on the number and that makes the event manageable. And it’s a, it’s a really amazing kind of experience to see people from these different fields start to talk to each other and to realize how much humility there is in the room. One Fellow tells a story and this is not, she’s not the only one, I’ve heard this over and over again, that they feel when they get to that event, they’re a little intimidated because every Fellow believes that they were a mistake. And so this Fellow reported that she spent the entire morning of the first day in the ladies restroom, hiding from the other Fellows until another Fellow came in intending to do the same thing and then they start talking and then they came back out and joined the group. That’s great. Well um, Cecilia, we’re out of time, so thank you very much, but I’ll say to the audience one last thing in case you get mobbed, they can mob you for another reason because you’re also in charge of the 100 million dollar, 100 & Change project at the MacArthur foundation and we’ll talk about that at some later time but she’s, she’s, in charge of the two, I think, probably most well-known program. I have the coolest job. She has a great– I have the coolest job. Just quickly, the 100 million dollar, the foundation is, gave out a 100 million dollar grant to a single project, in December we plan to do it again in three years. It was an open call, tell us what a 100 million dollars can do. And we had an external panel of judges who reviewed and helped the foundation narrow the pool down and then the board announced in December a 100 million dollar grant to Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee for an early childhood intervention in a Syrian refugee region and then because they liked the finalists so much, they gave, thank you very much. They gave three 15 million dollar grants to the three other finalists. One is Rice University, it’s a engineering project in, to help newborns survive in Malawi and other parts of Africa. HarvestPlus, which is a biofortified food project, and Catholic Relief Services Lumos and Maestral, which is a project to end orphanages. Actually we have, actually have a few minutes I remember, I’m gonna say one other thing because I was on the board when we were talking about this. It was my idea, although somebody else was getting credit for it, my idea of the day. It was my idea that we, ’cause the thing is we, we did this presentation where all of them came and we brought a lot of other funders together, and it’s really hard to find a project that can actually consume a 100 million dollars and the process of getting them from an idea to a group that could actually do that, even though they hated it through the process, it could’ve been shorter, it was a lot of worker to kinda get them organized, and when we got them to their finalist stage, I would have been happy giving 100 million to any of them, the finalists, I thought they were all great. And, in fact, a lot of other foundations and donors wanted to give money to all of the finalists, which was this other thing instead, it became kinda like a, it became a vetting process for potential projects, which I think is a thing, and then, what I wanted to do was wait and try to get funding for all of them and give our 100 million to the one that didn’t get funded, but then it wouldn’t be a prize anymore was the argument, so, so I get that. Yeah. We were also, they were, they were a such a, they had been such a long process. That’s true, it was getting tired. They were so anxious, they were so tired, they were, and believe me, when we told them they were getting 15 million, one of them said, you don’t get a 15 million call every day, so they were pretty happy. We’ve actually, we got some success, I can’t, I can’t name names but I’m anticipating some good news by the end of the year. ‘Cause, ’cause even this, the semi-finalists told me that they were all having a glow effect, it’s kind of like being an Oscar nominee and so I think that, that the 100 & Change is kind of like the MacArthur Fellows Program and that I think it’s a process to try and vet things. Obviously the MacArthur Fellows Program has been around longer so you kind of have that mostly figured out. But I think this 100 & Change, I think is a good way to try to look for projects that are also unique and, you know, worth attention. The other, the real distinction between them, whereas the MacArthur Fellows Program, we are secret about who’s involved, 100 & Change is part of our transparency, you can go online, you can see the judges, the 400 judges who participated in the evaluation project. There’s also a solutions bank where very proposal, at least a synopsis of it, is available for anyone, you can search it, they’re all tagged by sustainable development goal. It’s 1904 proposals that we got from around the world, so, and it’s really inspiring to read them, so if you get a little sad from reading the newspaper go to the Solutions Bank, 100 & Change. All right, thank you. (audience applauding)

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