Adele Simmons, former President of Hampshire College, served as MacArthur's President from 1989 to 1999. She established the Foundation's global reach, opening offices in Russia to strengthen universities and policy institutes, and launching the Population Program with field offices in Mexico, Nigeria, Brazil, and India. She increased collaboration with other foundations, completed the transfer of management from the board to the staff, and combined nine separate Foundation programs into four.
Under your leadership, the Foundation adopted research networks as an important modality of its work. What are research networks?
AS: Interdisciplinary research networks are like research institutions without walls. The Foundation initiates networks on specific topics to bring together highly talented individuals from a spectrum of disciplines, perspectives, and research methods. The networks examine problems and address empirical questions that will increase the understanding of fundamental social issues and are likely to yield significant improvements in policy and practice.
Why is an interdisciplinary perspective so important?
AS: If you're looking at a complex problem, you need to look at it from multiple perspectives. Complex problems cannot be solved by just one point of view or one discipline. One of the interesting things we found was that when you bring people together from different disciplines they learn from each other and gain perspective. And that's helpful for problem solving.
Couldn't the federal government support this kind of research?
AS: When we began the networks, the federal government was funding very narrow, discipline-specific work, so MacArthur could play an important role in broadening research. For example, the board felt that making progress on mental health issues required much more than the narrowly focused research the federal government was funding. I am a total believer in the interdisciplinary approach; it was critical to my own academic background. So our idea and the mental health networks' was to include the scientists, but also bring in the anthropologists and sociologists and others who could bring diverse approaches and perspectives to this issue.
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What do research networks say about the role of philanthropy in society?
AS: One significant role for philanthropy is to watch for spaces that are really important, but aren't at the center of government funding or attention. Then we can help push boundaries and promote new ways of thinking and new ways of looking at complex problems.
I think foundations can first help understand the complex problems and then really figure out the best strategies to help address them. This means providing leadership and a vision of a way forward. Because we have the resources, we can really identify and begin to invest in strategic change, and that provides leadership to other philanthropic institutions.
Doesn't that require risk taking?
AS: Part of foundation leadership is pushing the boundaries looking for new solutions. This is important. Foundations can and should take risks and try new ideas that the government cannot. And, if some things foundations do don't work out, that means they're learning. If you don't take some risks – and acknowledge that some of them aren't going to work out – then you're not pushing boundaries enough.
Since 1983, MacArthur has supported more than 30 interdisciplinary research networks on topics ranging from mental health to aging to law and neuroscience. The MacArthur Research Network on Successful Aging produced a best-selling book, Successful Aging, that has been influential in both public and academic spheres.