Thursday, October 1, 2015

Big Macs for 2015: Same Old Same Old

The mavens, pundits, and prognosticators at Big Mac Central have once again bestowed their special sauce on a cohort of worthy recipients. This year 24 people have gotten that whopper phone call telling them a Big Mac is on the way. And, once again, it’s pretty much same old same old.

You will find the complete working paper, The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before?, online and available for downloading:

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Two years ago I wrote a series of posts on the MacArthur Fellowship Program (tagged “MacArthurFP” on New Savanna) in which I argued that they should stop giving out grants to people with university gigs. Why? Because those people have an income and can function; they don’t need MacArthur money to maintain a baseline level of functioning. MacArthur money would foster more innovation by going to people without that basic financial security.

I posted an update for the 2014 cohort and now Big Mac Central has announced the class of 2015. Same old same old. There’s 24 fellows in all, of which I score 13 at university (or similar) gigs, and 11 non-university. That makes a majority of university gigs: 54%. Call that the cop-out ratio. The cop-out ratio for 2014 was 52%: 23 university gigs out of 21 fellowships. The 2013 ratio was 63%: 24 fellows, with 15 at university gigs.

I list my scoring judgments in the last section of this post. In the next section I take a look at what a small number of other people are saying about the Big Macs.

Other Views

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber calls for suggestions of worthy recipients who wouldn’t ordinarily be gifted by the conservative Big Mac Program. He sets up his call this way:
[…] I’ve always thought of them as tottering on a Bourdieuian knife-edge between two different kinds of legitimation. On the one hand, they are supposed to have consequences, to publicly recognize people who would otherwise be less well known, and giving them financial and symbolic support that they can then go on to use to do good and wonderful things. This means that it would be weird to give one e.g. to someone like Paul Krugman, who already is doing very nicely in terms of public recognition. On the other, they are supposed to go to people who are creative and brilliant – but in socially legitimated ways so as to maintain the status of the award. This means that they are unlikely to go to genuinely unsung geniuses, not simply because the selection process can’t find brilliance if it isn’t publicly well known, but because the legitimacy of the awards partly depends on their social validation by a variety of elite networks.
He goes on to suggest a policy more akin to the investment strategy of venture capitalists: Place a relatively large number of risky bets on the assumption that most will fail but that a small number will be very successful. I agree, of course.

In the ensuing discussion Spiny Norman observes:
As a biomedical scientist, I suggest that they not give it to biomedical scientists. We already have a LOT of awards with comparable cachet and money (half a million dollars, giver or take). Pew, Searle, American Cancer Society, American Heart Ass’n., Packard, etc., etc., etc. There are enough of these awards that they are not that hard to get (even I have one, for chrissakes). And we have NIH, HHMI, Gates Foundation, etc. Yes, we’re suffering for funding (because the GOP has contempt for reality) but we need real money — not the kind of tinpot funding that MacArthur offers. And honestly, the choices for MacArthurs for biomedical scientists have been extremely conservative. Most have already gotten one or more of the other awards listed above, or comparables. To good people, yes. But “geniuses”?

If they’re going to give MacArthurs in the life sciences, give them in areas that are catastrophically under-funded but where spectacular work is being done. Conservation biology. Evolutionary biology. Restoration ecology. Taxonomy. Areas where a “small” grant by NIH standards can make a genuinely transformative difference.
Over at The Baffler Thomas Frank cites James English (The Economy of Prestige) as observing that we are in fact awash in awards.
In pursuit of that project, all award programs face the same problems. Because the reputation of the prize must itself be established for the academy in question to set about judging the merits of others, all prize programs gravitate toward convention. They tend overwhelmingly to reward people whose reputations are already made. Indeed, as the competition between prizes grows more intense, English tells us, the pressure to associate a prize with safe and unquestionably prestigious figures only grows. This is why competing prizes within a field always tend to converge on the same individuals, virtual prize magnets who are fated to stagger through life under the weight of their accumulated laurels.
The central thrust of Frank’s article, however, is speculation about just what the Big Macs are for, if not for the identification of talent before it has ripened. His thinking centers on the mythic life-transforming phone call that informs a recipient that they’ve been gifted with a Big Mac, noting that the Foundation itself promotes this mythology:
What I discovered, however, was that it isn’t only the press that pushes this silly narrative. It’s also the people who hand out the Fellowship themselves; they want you to know how their philanthropy affects its recipients in the most intimate and immediate way. The MacArthur website features videotaped interviews with Fellowship winners; in every one I have listened to, the Genius in question winds up telling about how he or she felt when the call came, and often in strangely religious language. “When I first got the call from the MacArthur Foundation,” says playwright Samuel Hunter, “it was sort of like an out-of-body experience.” “You hear about MacArthur fellows,” relates public defender Jonathan Rapping, “and you sort of think of them as people who walk on water and do great work. . . . So, it was disbelief.”
In other words, the phone call telling you that you’ve gotten a Big Mac is a Whopper of a phone call.

Frank notes that there’s no apparent pattern to the awards beyond the fact that most of them go to the usual suspects.
[…] It seems almost random.

And that, on reflection, appears to be the key to the whole thing. Randomness is the pattern, the essential quality that defines the Genius Grant. From the selection process itself, which is totally opaque and closed to outsiders, to the phone call that comes as a complete surprise, what the MacArthur Fellowship is about is arbitrariness.

Let us recall, one last time, how the procedure unfolds. There’s that call—that “walk on water” call—in which an unexpected voice from on high informs someone that they have been chosen to join the elect, the creative. Because the Foundation is omniscient, like the Almighty, the call goes out to a great and diverse group, to people laboring in fields so varied they have no possible relationship to one another. Because the cogitations of the Foundation are unknowable, like the mind of God, the process by which they have all been chosen is completely mysterious.
And so:
Why does the Foundation promote the Parable of the Phone Call? Because that’s all there is. That is the civic ritual of our time. Here we are, Americans all together, staring at the solitary genius as she holds the instrument of destiny in her hand, taking the phone call from the billion-dollar patron. She is Creative. She is a Genius. And if you work hard, you can be too. Someday, that phone will ring for you.
The Big Mac is the ultimate lottery because you don’t even have to buy a ticket. As the saying goes, “May the blue bird of happiness smile on you.”

Scoring for 2015

Here’s the MacArthur Foundation’s page for the current class:

By my accounting, these are the awards going to people with secure jobs at prestigious institutions:

Kartik Chandran, Columbia University
Environmental Engineer: transforming wastewater from a pollutant requiring disposal to a resource for useful products, such as commodity chemicals, energy sources, and fertilizers.

Matthew Desmond, Harvard University
Urban Sociologist: revealing the impact of eviction on poor families and the role of housing policy in sustaining poverty and racial inequality in large American cities.

William Dichtel, Cornell University
Chemist: pioneering the assembly of molecules into stable, high surface-area networks with potential applications in electronic, optical, and energy storage devices.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Photographer and Video Artist: capturing the consequences of postindustrial decline for marginalized communities and illustrating how photography can promote dialogue about historical change and social responsibility.

Ben Lerner, City University of New York, Brooklyn College
Writer: transcending conventional distinctions of genre and style in works that convey the texture of our contemporary moment and explore the relevance of art and the artist in modern culture.

Dimitri Nakassis, University of Toronto
Classicist: challenging long-held assumptions about modes of economic exchange and political authority in prehistoric Greek societies and revealing their connections to the origins of modern civilization.

John Novembre, University of Chicago
Computational Biologist: shedding new light on the links between geography and genomic diversity and producing a more finely grained picture of human evolutionary history.

Christopher Ré, Stanford University
Computer Scientist: democratizing big data analytics through open source data-processing products that have the power of machine learning algorithms but can be integrated into existing and applied database systems.

Marina Rustow, Princeton University
Historian: mining textual materials from the Cairo Geniza to deepen our understanding of medieval Muslim and Jewish communities.

Beth Stevens, Department of Neurology, Harvard Medical School
Neuroscientist: revealing the heretofore unknown role of microglial cells in neuron communication and prompting a fundamental shift in thinking about brain development in both healthy and unhealthy states.

Lorenz Studer, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Stem Cell Biologist: pioneering a new method for large-scale generation of dopaminergic neurons that could provide one of the first treatments for Parkinson’s disease and prove the broader feasibility of stem cell–based therapies for other neurological disorders.

Heidi Williams, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Economist: unraveling the forces that hinder or spur medical innovation through empirically based studies that are informing public policy.

Peidong Yang, University of California, Berkeley
Inorganic Chemist: opening new horizons for tackling the global challenge of clean, renewable energy sources through transformative advances in the science of semiconductor nanowires and nanowire photonics.

These people are either free-lancers or employed at institutions that don’t have the cachet of top-of-the-line universities:

Patrick Awuah, Ashesi University College, Accra, Ghana
Education Entrepreneur: creating a new model for higher education in Africa that combines training in ethical leadership, a liberal arts tradition, and skills for contemporary African needs and opportunities. (Note: I know nothing about Ashesi University College. It may well be, and probably is, a fine school. But it’s a long way from Harvard or Stanford in the prestige markets.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, Washington, District of Columbia
Journalist: interpreting complex and challenging issues around race and racism through the lens of personal experience and nuanced historical analysis.

Gary Cohen, Health Care Without Harm, Reston, Virginia
Environmental Health Advocate: spurring environmental responsibility among health care providers and repositioning health care institutional practice around the broader challenges of sustainability, climate change, and community health.

Michelle Dorrance, Dorrance Dance/New York, New York, New York
Tap Dancer and Choreographer: reinvigorating a uniquely American dance form in works that combine the musicality of tap with the choreographic intricacies of contemporary dance.

Nicole Eisenman, New York, New York
Painter: expanding the expressive potential of the figurative tradition in works that engage contemporary social issues and restore cultural significance to the representation of the human form.

Mimi Lien, New York, New York
Set Designer: translating a text’s narrative and emotional dynamics onto the stage in bold, immersive sets that enhance the performance experience for theater makers and viewers alike.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, New York, New York
Playwright, Composer, and Performer: expanding the conventions of musical theater with a popular culture sensibility and musical styles and voices that reflect the diverse cultural panorama of the American urban experience.

Juan Salgado, Instituto del Progreso Latino, Chicago, Illinois
Community Leader: creating a model for workforce development and training among immigrant communities through a holistic approach that addresses language skills, education, and other barriers to entering the workforce.

Alex Truesdell, Adaptive Design Association, Inc., New York, New York
Adaptive Designer and Fabricator: constructing low-tech, affordable, and customized tools and furniture that enable children with disabilities to participate actively in their homes, schools, and communities.

Basil Twist, New York, New York
Puppetry Artist and Director: revitalizing puppetry as a serious and sophisticated art form in imaginative experiments with its materials, techniques, and uses in both narrative and abstract works.

Ellen Bryant Voigt, Cabot, Vermont
Poet: meditating on will and fate and the life cycles of the natural world through a distinctive intermingling of lyric and narrative modes and ongoing experimentation with form and technique.

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