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'Geniuses' awarded half-million prizes

September 20, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

MacArthur awards go to both scientists and artists.

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What do a pharmacist, a lobster fisherman, and Britain's first female principal conductor of a major symphony orchestra have in common? They have all received one of this year's MacArthur fellowships, a set of US$500,000 grants awarded to promising creatives across the entire sphere of intellectual endeavour.

The fellowships, often dubbed the 'genius awards', are presented each year to a select band of scientists, artists, writers and thinkers. The money, paid out annually over five years, comes with no strings attached.

We've never called them genius awards because, to my mind, 'genius' is too limiting.
Daniel Socolow
director of the MacArthur Fellows programme
"Our aim is to identify extraordinarily creative people and give them time and freedom," says Daniel Socolow, director of the fellowship programme at the MacArthur Foundation, the philanthropic organization based in Chicago, Illinois, that makes the awards. "They will know better than anyone else what to do with the money."

The 25 fellows on this year's list come from a huge range of backgrounds. Pharmacist Michael Cohen, president of the Institute for Safe Medication Practices in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, is committed to stamping out errors in drug delivery. He claims that these kill thousands of Americans every year. His institute has championed changes in drug naming to stop patients being given the wrong prescription accidentally, and advocates making the pharmaceutical industry more responsible for such errors.

Lobster fisherman and biochemist Ted Ames, based in Stonington, Maine, aims to combine scientific analysis with his decades of hands-on experience to develop strategies for managing fisheries on the east coast of the United States. And New York native Marin Alsop, now principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, will continue the pioneering work that has seen her recordings win a string of awards.

Future bets

"The awards are not in recognition of past achievements," says Socolow. "We're betting on the future." In many cases those bets have paid off. The almost 700 previous recipients include the Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, the elephant conservationist Cynthia Moss, and the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.

The fellows are chosen from a list of nominees provided by a non-permanent panel of around 100 anonymous, invited nominators. These are whittled down to the final list by a 12-strong selection committee. The money comes from an endowment from John MacArthur, who made his millions in insurance sales.

Also featured on this year's list are Joseph Curtin, a violin-maker seeking to use twenty-first-century materials and techniques to create better instruments; Claire Gmachl, a laser technologist whose work could lead to new techniques for environmental monitoring and clinical diagnosis; and Jon Kleinberg, a computer scientist tackling the perennial problem of how to extract the interesting information embedded in huge data sets such as genome sequences.

They are certainly a talented bunch. But Socolow recoils from the term 'genius awards', thought to have been coined by the New York Times when the foundation began awarding fellowships in 1981. "We've never called them genius awards because, to my mind, 'genius' is too limiting," he says. "The people are tenacious, willing to take risks, bold. That's not how you define genius."

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