James S. McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment

OVERVIEW: Not to be confused with the McDonnell Family Foundation, which is considerably smaller, the James S. McDonnell Foundation dedicates millions of dollars per year toward researching the human brain and the mind.

IP TAKE: McDonnell has a pretty narrow focus, which isn't great news for brain grantees, especially because the foundation's brain cancer-related grants are by invitation only. When applying for a human cognition grant, avoid projects that attempt "too wide a leap in a single bound" — the foundation cites the use of functional MRI to show neural correlates of cognitive or behavioral tasks as an example of technology that is still too unproven for its funding. 

PROFILE: James S. McDonnell, founder of McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, believed that private foundations have a major role to play in solving man’s multitude of problems. Problems of interest for McDonnell included space sciences, genetics, and studies of the human mind and brain. His foundation continues to explore those issues through its grantmaking.

The McDonnell Foundation concentrates its human mind/brain grantmaking in three main disciplines:

  • Understanding Human Cognition - This area of grantmaking focuses on supporting researchers and scientists who study “how neural systems are linked to and support cognitive functions and how cognitive systems are related to an organism’s (preferably human) observable behavior.” McDonnell awards 10 to 12 six-year, $600,000 grants out of this program annually. Grantees should focus on work that isn’t, as they put it “the current reigning trend,” but also isn’t too far outside the box. In other words, it’s okay to color a little bit outside the lines in your research, just not so far out that you can’t even see the lines anymore.
  • Studying Complex Systems - This is a highly technical grantmaking program that supports “scholarship and research directed toward the development of theoretical and mathematical tools that can be applied to the study of complex, adaptive, nonlinear systems,” as they apply to brain sciences. Grants are awarded to individual researchers working within larger medical research institutions, such as Johns Hopkins, Harvard Medical School and Emory University. Grants are six-year, $450,000 awards. Additionally, this grantmaking program offers a Postdoctoral Fellowship, a two-year, $200,000 grant available to PhD students who are within 18 months of finishing their graduate training.
  • Mathematical and Complex Systems Approaches for Brain Cancer - Grants are awarded in this program by invitation only and are not awarded to individuals. Grant amounts tend to range from $100,000 up to $1.5 million. The million-dollar grants aren't awarded in copious numbers - only a handful are made annually.

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