What the McDonnell Foundation Wants to Know About Human Cognition

The human brain: hugely important, astoundingly complex, and still poorly understood. The James S. McDonnell Foundation, which has been funding scientific research projects since the 1950s, has prioritized funding to brain research in the area of "human cognition" in recent years. The group is now spending millions annually to help researchers explain linkages between brain activity and human behavior. 

The McDonnell Foundation is selective in who it supports with its human cognition dollars — it only finances about a dozen projects a year. However, those projects do tend to be pretty well funded (by academic research standards, anyway). In 2012, the McDonnell Foundation invested in seven human cognition-related individual researcher projects to the tune of $600,000 over six years, and invested varying but substantial sums in four additional group/collaborative human cognition research projects over a range of time spans. (See McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment).

A sampling of projects the McDonnell Foundation supported last year includes a Cambridge researcher's investigation into the subjective experience of remembering, and a Netherlands-based researcher's work on understanding the brain science behind will-power and impulse control

In explaining the kind of human cognition projects it chooses to fund, the McDonnell Foundation has a list of cautions for potential grantees, including "Beware Overgeneralizations With Functional Imaging" and "Don't Be Too Broad." (Read McDonnell Foundation president, John Bruer's IP profile). But the Foundation also provides some helpful guidance on what it does want in a research project. 

That guidance includes an informative chart on how the Foundation allocates its research dollars by funding priority, researcher type, funding amount, application procedures, and timespan. In addition to human cognition projects, the Foundation also funds researchers engaged in the areas of brain cancer and the broader scientific research category of complex systems

At this time, the McDonnell Foundation is not actively soliciting proposals for human cognition research. However, given that awards in this research area are given out annually, and the Foundation's more than $463 millions in assets. It seems only a matter of time before the McDonnell Foundation invests in a new round of researchers seeking information into what's going on up there in the human brain. (Read McDonnell Foundation vice president, Susan Fitzpatrick's IP profile).