Genius Grants Almost Make Us Feel Equal This Year

The 2013 MacArthur Fellows list was released Wednesday, and includes 11 women among its 24 Fellows. Twenty to 30 winners are identified each year by the MacArthur foundation as being "exceptionally creative individuals with the potential for important works," as foundation Vice President Cecilia Conrad explained in a Washington Post op-ed yesterday.

With a process that shuns applications for nominations and third-party selection, it's telling to note the presence of women among the Fellows this year. Happily, representation since the program's inception in 1981. (In 1986, women comprised only two of the 25 recipients, whereas in 2009, for example, the 24-person list was an even split.)

Because the award is ultimately a speculative one, banking on individual potential instead of reflecting on lifetime achievement, it's not limited to a crowd that swings older. The youngest winner is 32-year-old Swamplandia! author Karen Russell. The oldest recipient, Carrie Mae Weems, is still a relative spring chicken at 60. Weems uses both still and video photography to look at feminism, African-American identity and class.

The grant includes a prize of $625,000 paid quarterly over the next five years — an increase from the $500,000 that's been awarded since the last pay bump in the year 2000. The prize comes with a famous no-strings-attached policy.

"The program has a philosophy that when you have identified people who have shown not only creativity but persistence and strong work ethic…you actually can have more impact by giving them autonomy and trust," Conrad said. "People take that trust and view it as something sacred that they need to work with."

But it's not like the winners are off to Hawaii. The prize money seeks to take the financial pressure off so they can concentrate on their creative projects without worrying about bothers like rent and student loans. Russell, for example, says she was bouncing from city to city and picking up odd writing gigs to support herself. (After writing a best-seller?!) She's now in New York and quite happy to be able to stay.

“I was really craving a stable home,” Russell said in the New York Times. “I’ve felt there are all these imaginary worlds that are probably preemptively foreclosed on because writers cannot support themselves. The MacArthur is this amazing license to take some imaginative risks because you have this safety net.”

Another one of the winners, Sheila Nirenberg, is a neuroscientist at Cornell University who says she's putting her funding into further research. Nirenberg has developed a prosthetic device that translates images into electrical pulses. It then translates them into the brains of (more than three) blind mice, allowing them to see.

"Winning this—it's not just for me," Nirenberg said in the Washington Post. "It allows me to help blind people. This is a huge pay-it-forward thing."