Policy Research

Our Goal

With a goal of advancing the development of more effective domestic policies, MacArthur’s program in policy research supports special policy projects, incubates new ideas, and provides unrestricted operating support to a small portfolio of effective policy organizations. In 2015, several time-limited projects, including the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society and the Improving the Nation’s Fiscal Future initiative are ending as planned. Two other time-limited projects, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance and the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative to change how states budget for effectiveness and long-term benefits, will complete their planned activities over the next three to four years.


Supporting U.S. Programs as a whole, the Policy Research area advances the development of more effective domestic policies by working to increase the policy impact of all domestic grantmaking strategies, carrying out special policy projects, incubating new policy ideas, and supporting cross-cutting work.


Government policy has profound effects on society. It establishes systems and institutions, determines spending priorities, and affects private enterprise, civil society, and citizens’ lives. For these reasons, we focus on how we should best think about policy, how policy change occurs, and how best to communicate promising policy innovations.

This policy focus is part of an approach across the domestic program that integrates research, practice, and policy in addressing social problems. It includes:

  • Supporting grantee organizations that inform the policy process through research, policy analysis, and educational campaigns
  • Encouraging investment in innovative approaches to solving policy challenges
  • Establishing interdisciplinary research networks of experts and researchers to advance new fields of inquiry with the potential to influence important public policy questions

Evidence is only one factor in achieving social change. We also seek to foster individual and group leadership to increase policy organizations’ impact and to work for government action.

Our Strategic Approach

Our theory of change is that sound empirical research produces evidence that is persuasive to policymakers and shapes policies that are more likely to work in practice. In most cases, our work seeks to inform and advise government (local or federal), which has the authority and resources to effect systemic change. We select fields we consider important, and fund leading researchers, scientists, and policy experts to conduct research and develop policy proposals in those fields. The goal is to have a comprehensive understanding of an issue and produce policy proposals that will have real impact.

Grantmaking Priorities

The Policy Research program has two principal elements:

Institutional Support to Key Organizations

Awarded to a small number of organizations, institutional support grants are multi-year, general operating grants to organizations that produce rigorous research and analysis on issues critical to the grantmaking strategies of the entire domestic program, and translate that work in ways that enhance its value to policymakers, the media, and the general public. At this time, the institutional support portfolio is principally targeted toward organizations focusing on fiscal and budgetary issues. There also are a small number of opportunistic grants for new initiatives that are well-positioned to advance policy change.

Special Policy Projects

Currently, four special initiatives with broad implications for domestic policy are underway:

The Power of Measuring Social Benefits
A motivating premise of this project is that effective social policies that invest in individuals who are in need or at-risk not only improve individual life chances, but, in many instances, also benefit the larger society and generate public returns long after assistance has ended. However, evidence to support this premise is not always readily available. The Power of Measuring Social Benefits initiative is focused on addressing this lack of evidence, and the grant strategy is focused on the use of benefit-cost analysis as a tool to inform policymakers. Grants support high-quality benefit-cost analyses across multiple policy domains; strengthen the field by improving methods and standards; and stimulate the demand for social benefit-cost analysis from policymakers. Signature initiatives include the Pew-MacArthur Results First Initiative and the Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.

U.S. Fiscal Future and American Society
Now drawing to a close, this project seeks to inform the debate about the country’s fiscal situation and the long-term implications that demographic, social and economic trends have for the nation’s fiscal future. The Foundation supported the convening of an expert committee under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Public Administration that produced Choosing the Nation’s Fiscal Future, which identified multiple different paths to federal fiscal stability that reflect the diversity of values and preferences of the American public. Beyond the federal government, states and local governments are also facing fiscal pressures. The strategy is supporting qualitative, quantitative, and comparative research, as well as policy analysis and development, to help policymakers understand better the drivers of state and local fiscal conditions. The strategy also has a particular emphasis on fiscal conditions in the state of Illinois.

MacArthur Research Network on Opening Governance
This research network seeks to develop blueprints for more effective and legitimate democratic institutions to help improve people’s lives. The Network convenes a range of experts to study what happens when governments and institutions open themselves to diverse participation, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and seek input and expertise from a range of people.

Combining empirical research with real-world experiments, the Research Network will study what happens when governments and institutions open themselves to diverse participation, pursue collaborative problem-solving, and seek input and expertise from a range of people. Network members include twelve experts in computer science, political science, policy informatics, social psychology and philosophy, law, and communications. This core group is complemented by an advisory network of academics, technologists, and current and former government officials. Together, they will assess existing innovations in governing and experiment with new practices and how institutions make decisions at the local, national, and international levels.

MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society
The Network is concluding its formal operations in 2015. The spring issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, features research of Research Network members. The Network has explored the social, institutional and policy implications of an aging society, characterized by a significant increase in disability-free life expectancy and the arrival at retirement age of the 76-million-member “baby boom” generation. These two factors will affect virtually all institutions and relationships in American life, from the family, neighborhood, businesses and civic life to government policies, economic productivity and global competitiveness. A key contribution of the Network is new U.S. population and mortality projections that take account of advances in bio-gerontology with its life-extending potential and the effects of unhealthy life conditions, which will have major implications for social, economic, and health policy.


The institutional support portfolio is currently focused on tax and budget issues. Foundation staff periodically review the institutional support portfolio as a whole to determine whether the focus remains timely and relevant to contemporary policy debates. Individual organizations are assessed for their fit within the portfolio and their role in informing policy discussions.

The Power of Measuring Social Benefits benefit-cost analysis project will be assessed formally in 2015. An assessment of the first three years of work of the Research Network on Aging Society was completed and contributed to a new round of funding.


Updated September 2017

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