James S. McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Science Research


OVERVIEW: This St. Louis-based funder supports research on brain science and the study of complex systems with the aim of gaining new knowledge and applying it in the real world.

IP TAKE: McDonnell seeks to fund innovative ideas in brain science and computing. It also prioritizes funding for international initiatives . However, individual applicants can submit proposals only once every three years.

PROFILE: With an endowment well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF) was founded in 1950 by aerospace and aviation industry leader James S. McDonnell and focuses on science research. The foundation prioritizes on brain science, human cognition, fighting brain cancer, and understanding complex systems.

Like a handful of other sizable science funders, JSMF prioritizes funding diverse paths of research over more mainstream projects and ideas. Additionally, McDonnell emphasizes its belief in supporting “the acquisition of new knowledge and in the responsible application of knowledge for solving the real world problems,” and asks grantseekers “to keep this in mind when preparing proposals.”

JSMF currently has two main funding priorities.

The foundation’s first main funding program, Understanding Human Cognition, funds brain science and research into how the functions of the brain are connected to human thought and behavior. The foundation funds research into brain functions such as memory and willpower, and how aging affects brain function.

Support takes the form of Collaborative Activity Awards (emphasizing interdisciplinarity and community-building between researchers and practitioners) as well as Scholar Awards and Teachers as Learners. Funding amounts and duration for the Collaborative Activity is described as “flexible.” The Scholar Award is for six-years and $600,000; however, it is by nomination only. The Teachers as Learners grant is for five years and $2.5 million.  

The foundation’s Understanding Dynamic and Multi-Scale Systems program 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.” This Postdoctoral Fellowship is a $200,000 award offered to PhD students for at least two, but no more than three years.

Grants from the McDonnell Foundation are limited in number but range significantly in size, with the largest awards surpassing $2 million and the smallest around $30,000. The foundation is transparent with regard to its recent awards (click on each project’s link for a full description), as well as its searchable database and geographic grantee map.

The foundation's website lists available funding opportunities for the first two programs, including an online application process and FAQ for those that are open to proposals.

For higher ed. institutions, the foundation is clear that it does not fund “undergraduate tuition, stipends, scholarships, fellowships, research or travel expenses, or other educational expenses.” With some exceptions, the same rule applies to funding for graduate students as well.

The foundation provides a helpful chart comparing grant types. It is important to remember that organizations “can only submit one application every three years on behalf of the named Researcher” (it is acceptable for the same organization to apply on behalf of multiple different researchers at the same time).