Research networks are a signature MacArthur “way of working.” They are designed to identify a big problem and bring together researchers, practitioners, and policymakers from multiple disciplines to work collaboratively over an extended period of time, typically six to as many as ten years. Ambitious and innovative −but not prescriptive−research networks liberate their members to pursue work that has the potential to change prevailing paradigms.
We do not know from the beginning what the results of a research network will be; however, our experience suggests that providing the space and resources for motivated, dynamic thinkers to come together to solve complex challenges can be often fruitful.
Through the Foundation’s first two decades, the networks were clustered in five areas: human development; mental illness; mental health and physical health; parasite biology; and economics.
Over the years, research networks have evolved. Initially focused on funding individual investigators in academic research, networks now embrace both academic and applied research. Moreover, recent research networks have been designed with explicit attention to how research findings can be communicated to and inform policymakers and practitioners, and include practitioner members to help ground the inquiry in real world concerns.
Research networks have been credited with multiple accomplishments. Work through the suite of economics networks helped lay the early foundations for what is now widely known as behavioral economics. Research from the Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice found that adolescent brains are not fully mature. This science provided the basis for the argument that adolescents should not be treated as adults by the criminal justice system, and ultimately informed the Supreme Court decisions (which cited the research) to ban the juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole sentences.
In 2000, the Foundation commissioned a review of research networks, which described the evolution of networks, provided examples of scientific and policy contributions, and evaluated the networks completed or underway at that time. That review concluded that networks are an effective means of accelerating scientific breakthroughs, changing concepts, tackling complex problems, and using research evidence to impact practice and policy. Recommendations from that review helped to shape and inform more recent networks.
Unlike project support or institutional operating support, research networks create a more open space for ideation and collaboration, with the goal of breaking new ground on big, timely challenges. Intensive preparatory activities to frame research network inquiries, identify network members, and vet initial and renewal network proposals with outside experts increase the potential for research networks not only to make distinctive conceptual contributions, but also to have real-world relevance and impact.
Updated April 2017