Three Rules for Landing a Human Cognition Grant From McDonnell

It's a well-known fact that the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF) is a tough nut to crack. (See McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.) Its endowment is approaching half a billion dollars in worth, yet the foundation hands out only $30 million or so in awards each year. To complicate matters, the area in which it gives the most money, brain cancer research, accepts proposals by invitation only. Womp womp.

Better to focus, then, on the extremely selective, extremely prestigious Human Cognition grants, which give up to $100,000 a year for six years. (Read McDonnell Foundation President John Bruer's IP profile.) McDonnell hands out only a dozen (at most) of these grants per year, so you'd better do your homework if you want to earn the foundation's consideration. Below, our top tips for landing a Human Cognition grant:

  • Toe the line between experimental and mainstream. Some funders seek out-there, boundary-pushing proposals, while others want safe proposals built on a foundation of solid, empirical science. McDonnell is in the gray area — that sometimes baffling middle ground between the two extremes. It doesn't want stuffy, stuck-in-a-rut research, based on proposals to answer the same old questions in slightly better ways. It wants new questions to answer and inventive proposals.
  • Be articulate. Although it seeks out slightly off-the-beaten-path science, JSMF doesn't want some half-baked proposal. Nor does it want a project that pushes too far beyond the limits of accepted science. The foundation wants what it calls "well-articulated questions." On its website, JSMF gives the example of using imaging to draw out-there conclusions about the areas of the brain that control motor skills and decision making — an intriguing but still rather on-the-fringe idea. Stick with what's universally accepted, but turn it on its side. Look at in a new way if you want to win JSMF's favor.
  • Don’t be too ambitious. A recently funded JSMF Human Cognition award covers the hierarchy of cognitive control — that is, how everyday tasks are "chained" together in the brain — and how and why the order of these tasks can get shuffled. The researcher, David Badre, PhD, of Brown University, uses the example of someone starting to brew coffee before he's put in the grounds to show the problems that can arise when the brain undertakes simple tasks out of sequence. It's an everyday problem that we all are familiar with, but Badre looks at it in an interesting way, using computational cognitive neuroscience. All he wants to do is look at and understand the brain pathways that influence this sequencing — not make some extreme, conclusive leap about what causes it or how to avoid it. That's JSMF-style science.