During the past several years, the James S. McDormell Foundation’s support of scientific research has grown significantly—and so has its determination to spend its grant money where it will create the greatest possible impact on scientific research. The foundation’s recent thrust into the realm of cognitive neuroscience dramatically shows the new attitude that, if it’s going to be a bigger spender, it must also be, so to speak, a better shopper.

Launched in 1950 on the strength of a $500,000 gift from aerospace industry magnate James McDonnell, the St. Louis-based organization maintained for the first three decades of its existence the low-proffle image of a moderately endowed hometown angel, specializing in good-neighbor donations to schools, hospitals, and charities in its headquarters city.

In its early years, the foundation’s total giving made only small ripples in the nation’s overall philanthropic pool. In 1969, for example, the 26 grants it awarded totaled...

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