MacArthur Geniuses Tend to Move to Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, MacArthur "Genius" grant recipients aren't born. They're made.

Every year, the MacArthur Foundation names its class of “geniuses”—innovators and creative people whose work the foundation rewards with a no-strings-attached grant of $650,000. And almost every year, there are some Massachusetts names on the list. (Obviously. We’re wicked smart.) But just how well represented are we among the 897 fellows the Foundation has named since 1981?

The MacArthur Foundation itself sought out the answer to that question. Looking to discover where geniuses are born, they crunched some numbers and found that New York, California, and Pennsylvania birthed the most MacArthur fellows. Massachusetts comes in at fourth.

(MacArthur Foundation)

(MacArthur Foundation)

Perhaps more interestingly, the foundation also asked where geniuses end up living by the time they win their award. After all, no one controls where they were born. But a lot of people choose where they end up. MacArthur fellows are more mobile than the average person. And many of them, geniuses that they are, move to Massachusetts. The states with the most fellows at the time they won the award are California, with 172 fellows, New York with 188, and Massachusetts with 107.


(MacArthur Foundation)

California, of course has almost six times as many residents as Massachusetts, so when you adjust for population, we seemingly look pretty good. But actually, calculating the “fellows per capita” reveals that the real leaders there are Alaska, New Mexico, and Vermont. Not too many MacArthur fellows live in those states. But then, not too many non-MacArthur fellows live there, either.

So who ends up luring the most fellows? California boasts the biggest gain with a net jump of 113 fellows between birth and award. Massachusetts boasts the second largest leap, with a net gain of 58 fellows. (Intahlopahs!) In Massachusetts, apparently, geniuses aren’t born. They’re made. Compare that to Pennsylvania, which is the birthplace of many fellows, but which posts a net loss of 30 fellows by the time awards are doled out.


(MacArthur Foundation)

That’s good news for this commonwealth. Any old state can be the birthplace of a genius. Luring them to your state after they’re born is the real key. What makes some states more alluring than others? The Foundation itself suggested some motivations for moving. Having a cultural center in your state is one big draw:

In a recent paper in Science, Maximilian Schich and his collaborators observe that notable antiquarians of the eighteenth century were born all over Europe but died in cultural centers such as Rome, Paris, or Dresden. Fellows display an analogous tendency to congregate in cultural centers.

For creative types, that probably makes cities with entertainment industries like Los Angeles and New York more appealing. Probably more important in the case of Boston and Massachusetts is the fact that scientists tend to move to where there is research money. And the number of research universities in Boston alone accounts for the residency of a lot of the MacArthur fellows that live here. Boston is a town driven by higher-education, and for that reason, there are a lot of smahties in our midst.