MacArthur Foundation: Grants for STEM Higher Education


OVERVIEW: MacArthur is one of the largest foundations in the country, and is concerned with justice, peace, and the environment, many of the research grants involve social and environmental sciences. It does not have a program specific to STEM education, but has sometimes supported STEM research area as part of its other programs.

IP TAKE: MacArthur recently made major changes to its grantmaking priorities. Start by figuring out if your higher ed program's interests overlap with MacArthur's, then pitch a proposal that serves an issue connected to your own.

PROFILE: With assets of over $6 billion, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is an impossible-to-ignore player in the world of philanthropy. Its mission and activities are broad and far-reaching, with the objective of “building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world” by working “to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society.”

It’s important to note at the outset that MacArthur has recently undergone a major restructuring. Most of its prior programs have either been terminated or are in the process of being wound down over the next few years. Instead, the foundation is backing to “Big Bets”: Climate Solutions and Criminal Justice (directed largely at reducing what the foundation views as overincarceration in the U.S.), as well as a handful of legacy programs (such as the MacArthur Fellowship, aka the “Genius Grant”). 

For many years, Digital Media and Learning has been the program for funding education (including STEM) at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels. In late 2015, however, this program was spun off into a separate entity, Collective Shift, which is headed by Constance “Connie” Yowell, who previously served as Director of Education at MacArthur. For the time being, Collective Shift appears more focused on K-12 education than higher ed.

For the Climate Solutions program, MacArthur’s strategy is to start with the U.S. and gradually expand to other countries in an effort to support “leadership, policy development, best practices, and innovations designed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” The majority of grants thus far appear to have gone towards policy efforts rather than science research, but the program’s objectives and strategy do leave the door open for STEM work as one element of its approach.

In the area of Criminal Justice, MacArthur’s focus is on “investment in local reform, research, experimentation, and communications intended to create national demand for local justice reform as a means of reducing over-incarceration in America.” There has been occasional support for social science and/or policy research related to this topic, so there might also be an opening here.

Another area to keep an eye on is MacArthur’s stated commitment to addressing “nuclear risk.” As of early 2016, the foundation has yet to unveil a program related to this objective, but higher ed STEM programs could well have a role to play here as well.

Grants from the MacArthur Foundation are often substantial and can be searched in the foundation’s grants database.

If your proposal is in line with MacArthur’s initiatives, the first step is to review the foundation’s Guidelines & Funding Cycles page to determine if your program area is currently issuing calls for proposals and/or accepting letters of inquiry


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