Does the McDonnell Foundation Have a Preference for International Initiatives?

Based in St. Louis, the James S. McDonnell Foundation hands out around $30 million in awards each year, and it is crazy selective about who gets the money. (See McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.) A mere dozen (or even fewer) Human Cognition awards — which give out $600,000 over the course of six years — are presented each year, and only to the most worthy recipients. Approaching the McDonnell Foundation from that angle, it may seem to be the longest shot in the history of grant writing. But take a quick step back and reassess: The McDonnell Foundation has a clear preference for funding international projects.

There were seven Scholar Awards made in Human Cognition in 2012, and three of them were U.S.-based. The others reached to Europe: Paris, England, the Netherlands. Further down the list, I took a peek at McDonnell's Collaborative Activity Awards — and spied Argentina and Brazil. The awards lists for previous years (the foundation lists three years' worth of Human Cognition awards on its website) revealed a similar trend. The foundation simply likes to fund international initiatives. The question is, why?

What makes international science so appealing? If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the true spirit of innovation, plus historic and cultural causes, are to blame. Think about it. Central to the McDonnell Foundation's mission is funding outside-the-box science that doesn’t push its luck. And where else but in the sophisticated, smaller labs and institutes of Europe could you find both the historical precedent for groundbreaking science that doesn't reach too far and the institutional agility necessary to absorb the latest techniques? Similarly, scientists in South America are commonly given a much freer rein to pursue cutting-edge science, and they need not suffer through bureaucratic rigmarole to get on with their research. (Read McDonnell Foundation President John Bruer's IP profile.)

So, what's the take-away lesson here? If you want to pursue funding from one of McDonnell's Human Cognition grants, you need to think like a European. Or an Argentinian. Apparently, they strike a perfectly tuned balance between innovation and articulation that McDonnell finds completely irresistible. (Read McDonnell Foundation Vice President Susan Fitzpatrick's IP profile.)