Wednesday, October 2, 2019

When geniuses walked the Earth -- now! -- Oct. 3, 2019 column


Imagine you receive $625,000 out of the blue with no strings attached.

What would you do? Quit your job, pack your bags and take an extended vacation?

Ah, that’s what separates most of us from MacArthur fellows. The winners of what are commonly known as “genius grants” choose to keep working. For that, we can be grateful.  

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation yearly awards fellowships to residents or citizens of the United States who exhibit extraordinary creativity. Each receives $625,000 in quarterly installments over five years.  

With the bitter fight over presidential impeachment dominating the news 24/7, it was easy to miss the foundation’s Sept. 25 quiet and purely positive announcement.

The diverse group of 26 fellows ranges in age from 30 to 67, and includes scientists, historians, professors, writers and artists.

The foundation takes a wide view of artistic and intellectual creativity, theoretical and practical. The grants give promising thinkers and doers the freedom and flexibility to pursue their work wherever it leads.

In several ways, the genius grants seem distinctly not of our time, when outrageous remarks and behavior command far more attention than being smart and working hard.

The foundation doesn’t even use the word genius. A reporter called the first fellowships genius grants in 1981, and the term stuck.

Ours is an age of relentless self-promotion, but no one can apply for a grant. You must be nominated by authorities in your field, and the selection process is private. Anyone who holds elective office or an advanced government post is automatically ineligible.

Recipients are called with the good news and allowed to tell only one person until the big announcement a couple of weeks later.

Most grantees have never gone viral and, thus, are largely unknown to the public. The 2019 class includes several fellows tackling seemingly intractable scientific and social problems.

Four are working on climate change and its effects. Three are scientists: Andrea Dutton, 46, at the University of Wisconsin, who studies melting ice sheets; Stacy Jupiter, 43, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, who works in Fiji on conservation efforts, and Jerry Mitrovica, 58, of Harvard University, who studies rising sea levels. Artist Mel Chin, 67, lives in Egypt, N.C.

Jenny Tung, 37, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke, studies how social experiences affect rates of disease and longevity in baboons in Kenya, work that could apply to humans.

Attorney Sujartha Baliga, 48, practices restorative justice, survivor-centered alternatives to the traditional legal system. Legal scholar Danielle Citron, 50, studies the effects of cyber harassment and hate crimes. Lisa Daugaard, 53, director of the Public Defender Association in Washington state, is a criminal justice reformer.

Urban designer Emmanuel Pratt, 42, revitalizes abandoned buildings and communities on Chicago’s South Side with agriculture and new construction.

Literary scholar Jeffrey Alan Miller, 35, discovered the earliest known draft of the King James Bible. Classicist Emily Wilson, 47, was the first woman to translate “The Odyssey” into English.

Ocean Vuong, 30, who came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam at the age of 2, is a poet and fiction writer. Lynda Barry, 63, is a graphic novelist, Mary Halvorson, 38, a guitarist and composer, and Sarah Michelson, 55, a choreographer.

No one looks over fellows’ shoulders or reports on how they use the money. 

“If every fellow hit only home runs, we would worry that we were not taking enough risks or that we’d chosen the wrong people,” Cecilia A. Conrad, the program’s director, wrote in a 2013 op-ed in The Washington Post.

Among fellows who have hit home runs: surgeon and writer Atul Gawande and writers Cormac McCarthy and Te-Nehisi Coates.

Even today, most of the 1,040 MacArthur grantees aren’t famous, even if they have made significant contributions to a better world.

Few know the name Joel Schwartz, the first government worker to win a genius grant. But, as a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator once said, we should think of Schwartz every time we fill up our car with gas.

An epidemiologist toiling at EPA in the 1980s, Schwartz did the research into the health effects of lead exposure that resulted in the phaseout of lead in gasoline. 

Schwartz won in 1991, when the grant was $275,000. He continues his research at Harvard.

These dark and turbulent times in Washington challenge our sense of optimism about the American future. To stay positive, we’ll need to focus on what’s going right in the country.

The MacArthur genius grants give us hope.   

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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