Discovery Grants are identified and selected by a cross-program group of foundation staff and outside advisors, and awarded to promising but unproven approaches to important social problems.
Generally, Discovery Grants:
- address important social issues where the Foundation can have an impact
- respond to timely opportunities
- promise outcomes that can be assessed
- are ambitious
- demonstrate awareness of future trends and needs
Grants are not restricted to a particular set of topics, but they must address an important social issue outside of one of the Foundation’s areas of grantmaking. Grants are one time, typically for no more than two years, with amounts ranging from $15,000 to $500,000. Grants are awarded based on the recommendation of the Discovery Grants Committee, which is drawn from across the foundation and holds meetings open to all MacArthur staff roughly ten times per year.
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Representative Discovery Grants
The Citizen Radiation Monitoring Network
$400,000 over two years
The Citizen Radiation Monitoring Network will engage individual citizens to collect, map, and share data about background radiation. The aim is to encourage greater public openness about radiation contamination and to provide government with better data for planning purposes. The Discovery Grants Committee recommended a grant to the project because it will bring a broad new set of participants into the process of data collection and analysis and thus address an important issue in a new manner. Numerous parties have expressed interest in the data that will be produced, including the Department of Homeland Security and a broader set of scientists wishing to study background radiation and emergency preparedness.
The Franklin Project for National Service
$250,000 over two years
The Aspen Institute’s Franklin Project intends to make voluntary national service broadly available in the United States, and to help create one million paid volunteer positions annually for 18-28 year olds. Volunteers will addresses a wide range of social, political, educational, and economic needs, including early childhood education, healthcare services for the poor and underserved, protecting public lands and waterways, building housing and parks, and assisting the elderly. Volunteers may be young people seeking work experience or veterans returning home. The Committee recommended a for this proposal based on strong support inside the Foundation for the concept of national service, this project’s potential for broad public impact, its fit with current and past work by the MacArthur Foundation, and the proven success of the project leadership team.
Jail Education Solutions (JES)
$325,000 over one year
Jail Education Solutions was established in 2013 to help reduce mass incarceration and its impact on communities. Its first project, with Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, will curate and produce educational video content that addresses the specific information needs of people being held in jail awaiting trial or prison. The Committee recommended a grant to support 20 hours of original content, an evaluation, and the creation of a web portal. Committee members noted that this project addresses an important social problem of great concern to the foundation, but in a way that does not fit within existing programs or strategies. Committee members also noted that JES had strong support within Sheriff’s department.
The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement
$50,000 over one year
The Evolving Culture of Science Engagement workshop is a collaborative effort between researchers at MIT, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and Culture Kettle to combine objective science reporting with personal storytelling in ways that humanize scientists and science and connect science with popular culture. The Committee recommended a grant because it represents a new approach to establishing scientific credibility, particularly regarding political issues that turn on scientific judgment, such as climate change.
Hunt Alternatives Fund: Demand Abolition
$150,000 over one year
Most public and private efforts to eradicate sex trafficking focus on rescuing and rehabilitating victims, and, to some extent, prosecuting perpetrators and members of trafficking syndicates. Demand Abolition is committed to combating the demand for purchased sex by identifying demand-reduction policies and practices. To provide the baseline understanding of the purchased sex problem’s scope, Demand Abolition is formulating a quantitative research design and instrumentation and a pilot study of that instrument. The Committee recommended a one-year, $150,000 research grant for this project.
Freedman Consulting: Leadership Development
$50,000 over one year
A key ingredient in the future of governmental and civil society progress will be recruiting talented individuals trained in technology and engineering. This study will examine the barriers to computer science and information school students in moving from university to the public sector, what can be learned from other disciplines (like law and management consulting) about developing a public sector pipeline, and what private foundations currently are doing to address this issue. The Committee recommended a payment for this project based on shared interest in it within many areas of the Foundation, including U.S. Programs, International Programs, and the President’s office. Costs were shared with the Ford Foundation.
New York University Law School, Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference
$60,000 over one year
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates there will be 15,000 civilian unmanned aerial vehicles in American skies by 2020, raising questions and anxieties about privacy, surveillance, and the rule of law. The Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference is focused on the consequences of drone proliferation, and on developing a constructive law and policy agenda for governing the use of drones in domestic airspace. The Committee noted that the technologies associated with drones are evolving more quickly than the law, making the project particularly timely and anticipatory, and that the issues addressed are relevant to many of the Foundation's areas of work, including human rights, security, justice, climate, and the media.
Chicago Architecture Foundation: City of Big Data
$100,000 over one year
This exhibit will increase public understanding of the use of data in the design and management of Chicago and other large cities; it will provide citizen input to city officials about data and infrastructure priorities. It will also serve as a point of collaboration between representatives of government, industry, and academia concerned with civic uses of data. Committee members supported a grant based on the timeliness of the topic, the track record of the organization, support from a wide variety of civic leadership, and its potential to foster collaboration between the institutions in the city.
CNT Energy: Green Events app
$100,000 over one year
CNT Energy helps consumers and communities obtain the information and services they need to control energy costs and become more environmentally sustainable in how they live and work. This grant to CNT Energy will provide reliable information to professional and occasional meeting planners in Chicago about the sustainability of their suppliers, conference venues, catering, and travel options. Committee members recommended a grant based on the track record of the organization, and the potential to enable the travel plans of many people and institutions to reflect their concern for the environment. The project has since been replicated in several other U.S. cities – an unexpected yet positive outcome.
Cool the Earth: Student Game
$100,000 over one year
Cool the Earth motivates students, parents, and teachers to take simple, measurable actions—conserving energy, materials, and green space—to reduce carbon emissions. This grant supports a web-based game geared towards primary school students that inspires them to adopt behaviors in their daily lives that result in less carbon emissions. After an intense debate about the merits of this project, the Committee decided to approve this grant based on its potential to address public understanding of climate change in a new way, through children and their parents.
State University at Stony Brook: Masculinity Studies
$300,000 over two years
This grant provides seed funding to establish a center for the study of men and masculinities at State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook. Gender Studies is one of the fastest growing interdisciplinary fields, yet its historical origins have meant that most programs have been by and about women. The center will conduct research and interdisciplinary scholarship, create a Master’s degree program, and serve as a resource for non-profit organizations concerned with a wide range of social problems that might be addressed through a deeper understanding of masculinity. The Committee recommended a grant based on the project’s potential to increase public discussion of important social issues, and to inform work in other areas of the Foundation on topics ranging from violence to maternal mortality.
Oxfam America: EquiTABLE Food Initiative
$300,000 over two years
The EquiTABLE Food Initiative is field testing standards for food safety, environmental sustainability, and labor for U.S. produce. After decades of campaigns, organizing, and policy advocacy, three-fifths of America’s 1.4 million farm workers live in poverty, and unsafe foods cause an estimated 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States. Despite consumers’ growing concern regarding these issues, America lacks a broad-based, effective means to ensure environmental and food safety standards. The multi-stakeholder effort involves leading food retailers, growers and farm workers, food safety and environmental organizations who have developed the standards and will test them on a limited number of markets as a first phase. The Committee recommended a grant based on the program’s potential to address several important social problems in a novel way, and to grow to a much larger size given modest support now. It has since been profiled in The New York Times.
International Living Future Institute: Financing Green Buildings
$100,000 over one year
Accounting more accurately for the benefits of green building practices could help transfer hundreds of billions of dollars of real estate investment towards restorative buildings—those that function in a symbiotic relationship with the natural environment. This grant will allow the International Living Future Institute to bring together leading real estate, finance, and environmental experts concerned about climate change to frame a new way of assessing how green buildings impact the environment. The Committee recommended a grant based on its potential to inform investment decisions in real estate.
George Washington University: Internet Trade Agreements
$20,000 over one year
This project will critically examine how the U.S., E.U., and Canada are increasingly using trade agreements and treaty organizations to govern the Internet. Professor Susan Ariel Aaronson of George Washington University, a leading authority on trade agreements, economic policy and human rights, will examine four objectives generally shared by the U.S., E.U., and Canada - maintaining Internet freedom, ensuring Internet security, protecting property rights and ensuring privacy rights - to determine whether these objectives have been effectively pursued and balanced through use of trade policy. The Committee recommended a grant based on its timeliness and multidisciplinary approach.
Openlands Project: Community Gardens
$90,000 over one year
Openlands Project is a Chicago-based non-profit organization founded in 1963 to protect the natural habitats and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region. This grant will support GardenKeepers, a project that will build on Openlands’ experience with school and community gardens to create a replicable model for community and school gardens, resolve legal issues faced by most would-be gardeners, educate gardeners and garden organizers, and conduct and independent evaluation of broader social and cultural impacts of the program. The Committee recommended a grant based on its potential to address several important social issues of interest to the Foundation, including violence in Chicago, economic development, climate change, and education.