James S. McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Science Research

OVERVIEW: This St. Louis-based funder has supported only research since its launch in 1950 by aerospace and aviation industry leader James S. McDonnell. The foundation, however, does not explicitly fund aerospace research. It focuses instead 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 is looking to back out-of-the-box ideas in hot fields like brain science and computing. It also has a preference for funding international initiatives . But it only lets individual applicants submit proposals once every three years, so be ready with your A-game when submitting to this funder.

PROFILE: With an endowment well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the James S. McDonnell Foundation (JSMF) is interested only in science research. It has a particular focus on brain science, human cognition, fighting brain cancer, and understanding complex systems.

Like a handful of other sizable science funders, JSMF is more interested in funding diverse paths of research than supporting more mainstream projects and ideas. Equally - if not more - importantly, 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 three main funding priorities.

The first of these, Understanding Human Cognition, funds the red-hot area of brain science and research into how the functions of the brain are connected to human thought and behavior. The foundation is sending millions into this murky field, trying to shed some light on mysterious brain functions such as memory and willpower, and how aging affects brain function.

Support is available in the form of Collaborative Activity Awards (emphasizing interdisciplinarity and community-building between researchers and practitioners) as well as Scholar Awards. Funding amounts and duration for the Collaborative Activity is described as “flexible.” The Scholar Award six-year, $600,000 award. Up to eight Scholar Awards are given out each year.  

The foundation’s Studying Complex Systems program supports the “continued development of the theory and tools used in the study of complex research questions and not on particular fields of research per se.” This program offers three funding vehicles: the Postdoctoral Fellowship is a $200,000 awarded offered to PhD students for at least two, but no more than three years; the Scholar Award in Complex Systems is a six-year, $450,000 award for investigators who are between five and 15 years post-PhD; and the Collaborative Activity award, which is flexible in amount and duration. 

The third program contains elements of the others and is called Mathematical and Complex Systems Approaches for Brain Cancer. Unlike the other two funding areas, this program takes proposals by invitation only and is restricted exclusively to Collaborative Research, as guided by the foundation’s Complex Systems Advisory Board.

Grants from the McDonnell Foundation are limited in number but range significantly in size, with the largest awards surpassing $2 million and the smallest in the neighborhood of $30,000. The foundation is more detailed than most in the degree to which it details 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, it’s important to keep in mind that the foundation is explicit in not funding “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.

To help determine whether your project qualifies, take a look at this helpful chart comparing grant types. Keep in mind that your organization “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) so be sure your proposal is in top form when you send it in.