Research Networks

From 1984 to 2021, The Foundation supported interdisciplinary research networks that examined problems and addressed empirical questions that had the potential to change prevailing paradigms.
Group of diverse elderly people practicing Thai Chi in a dance studio
Addressing social and physical needs of elderly citizens was core to the Research Network on Aging Society which focused on how major societal institutions will have to change to support the emergence of a productive, equitable aging society.

About Our Research Networks

We supported interdisciplinary research networks, "research institutions without walls," on topics related primarily to human and community development. The Foundation-initiated projects brought together highly talented individuals from a spectrum of disciplines, perspectives, and research methods. The networks examined problems and addressed empirical questions that increased the understanding of fundamental social issues and contributed to significant improvements in policy and practice.

Research networks were a signature MacArthur “way of working.” They were 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 liberated their members to pursue work that had the potential to change prevailing paradigms.

We did not know from the beginning what the results of a research network would be; however, our experiences suggest 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 evolved. Initially focused on funding individual investigators in academic research, networks later embraced both academic and applied research. Moreover, recent research networks were 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 it ultimately informed the Supreme Court decisions (which cited the research) to ban the juvenile death penalty and juvenile life without parole sentences.

Why Research Networks

In 2000, we 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 were 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 created a more open space for ideation and collaboration, with the goal of breaking new ground on big, timely challenges.

We began winding down research networks as it shifted to supporting Big Bets, concentrating resources in a few areas of work to achieve transformative impact. While research network activities ended in 2021, the connections, creativity, and learnings of the networks continue to impact their respective fields.

Research Quality Standards and Practices

Since our inception, we have supported high-quality, innovative research on issues of longstanding or emerging public interest. Over the years, this support enabled interdisciplinary research networks, such as the Network on Inequality and Social Interactions, the Network on Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice, and the Network on Youth and Participatory Politics; research competitions such as How Housing Matters and the Research and Writing Grants Competition; and the work of many individual scholars and collaborations on a wide array of topics. Today, we continue this tradition of research support in a manner consistent with our mission to build a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. Our highest priority in funding research is to support cutting-edge work that furthers our strategic priorities; advances important local, national, and international debates; and informs smart decisions.

While we have always worked to ensure that research we support is of the highest quality, we are formally articulating a set of uniform research quality standards and practices to ensure consistency across our programs and as a guide to applicants seeking funding for individual research projects or institutional support. These standards are:

  • The research is being conducted in the public interest.
  • The researchers are committed to objectivity, and the research is independent and not connected to biased sponsors or clients.
  • The researchers are recognized or up-and-coming experts in the subject matter and are situated appropriately in their field, and the host institution is acknowledged as consistently producing excellent research.
  • The problem is well-formulated, the purpose of the study and its policy significance are clear, and the findings will advance knowledge.
  • The research questions are clearly formulated; the research plan is sound; the analytical frameworks are appropriate; and the research methods, data plan and general project management meet the most rigorous standards of the field or discipline.
  • If quantitative research, databases are publicly accessible for review by other researchers.
  • The institution has a plan or structure in place to validate the findings and review the policy and practical implications of the outcome of the research prior to release and publication.
  • The research findings will be broadly disseminated in a timely manner.

We are proud to support new, exploratory, and sometimes risky research and, therefore, are aware that, at times, some of these standards cannot be met. To that end, we have identified a set of best practices to ensure that the risks involved in research are known, transparent, and effectively managed. These best practices entail independent review of the research design and methods at the outset, as well as vetting of research findings prior to publication or dissemination. Ideally, research will also be independently reviewed periodically throughout the research process. On occasion, we may commission an external quality assessment and, when appropriate, may convene an advisory board or review panel for major research undertakings that we support. We expect that research institutions receiving general support will also adhere to these practices.

If you are being considered for a research grant, your program officer will discuss with you the ways in which we are integrating this policy into our grantmaking.

Past Research Networks

Neuroscience and the Law (2007 -2021)
Opening Governance (2014 - 2018)
Connected Learning (2009 - 2018)
Youth and Participatory Politics (2009 - 2018)
Aging Society (2007 - 2017)
Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice (1995 - 2017)
How Housing Matters (2008 - 2013)
Building Resilient Regions (2006 - 2013)
Youth Mental Health Care (2001 - 2012)
Mandated Community Treatment (2000 - 2010)
Early Experience and Brain Development (1998 - 2010)
Socioeconomic Status and Health (1996 - 2009)
Teaching and Learning (1999 - 2008)
Mental Health Policy Research (1999 - 2008)
Transitions to Adulthood (2000 – 2008)
The Effects of Inequality on Economic Performance (1993 - 2007)
The Comparative Study of Health and Social Upheaval (2000 - 2006)
Depression and Primary Care (1995 - 2006)
Family and the Economy (1997 - 2005)
Economic Inequality and Social Interactions (1995 - 2005)
Evolution of Preferences and Social Norms (1995 - 2005)
Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (1990 - 2005)
Inequality and Social Interactions (1996 - 2004)
Successful Paths through Middle Childhood (1994 - 2002)
Psychopathology and Development (1994 - 2001)
Inequality and Poverty - Broader Perspective (1995 - 2001)
Mind-Body Interactions (1990 - 1999)
Successful Midlife Development (1990 - 1998)
Mental Health and the Law (1988 - 1997)
Successful Aging (1985 - 1996)
Successful Adolescent Development (1988 - 1996)
Health and Behavior (1984 - 1993)
Biology of Parasitic Diseases and Biology of Parasite Vectors (1984 - 1994)
Psychobiology of Depression (1983 -1992)
Early Childhood Transitions (1983 - 1992)
Risk/Protective Factors Mental Illness (1983 - 1989)