On a sunny summer day recently, while plowing through a stack of paper work in his office, John Hopfield got the call that he says may change his life. The California Institute of Technology physicist was informed by a man he had never heard of that he was being given $244,000 over the next five years to spend in any way he wished. Tax free. No strings attached.
Thirteen other astonished individuals around the country got similar calls. They are this year's pick of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's fellowship program, now in its third year of bestowing lucrative grants on unsuspecting scholars and professionals.
The Chicago-based foundation aims to free the MacArthur fellows from financial concerns so they can devote themselves to more creative matters. ''We're trying to expedite significant contributions to society that might not otherwise be made,'' explains Kenneth Hope, interim director of the foundation's fellowship program.
Whether or not the grants will make landmark innovations possible may be hard to determine, however. Unlike virtually all other donors of grants, the MacArthur Foundation scrupulously avoids checking up on its recipients to see how they are using the money.
''They don't ask and I don't volunteer it,'' says Ian Graham, an archaeologist at Harvard's Peabody Museum and a fellow honored in the first wave of selections in 1981. ''Their inquiries never get more specific than 'How's it going?' ''
Foundation officials insist that their hands-off stance is at the heart of the program's philosophy. ''The notion is that this should provide freedom,'' adds Mr. Hope. ''Otherwise, the entire spirit of this would change.''
Such a liberal attitude is welcomed by many people, since government agencies and philanthropic organizations frequently scrutinize the way research funds are spent. As these groups tend to be conservative in the types of projects they fund, such close supervision, scholars claim, can discourage the sort of risk-taking necessary to many creative enterprises. ''It gets a little crazy,'' says Stephen Berry, a University of Chicago chemist and MacArthur fellow. ''People can end up writing a research proposal for a grant on something they've already done. Then (after they receive the grant) they go on and do something else.'' If it turns out to be worthwhile, he adds, the researcher will write a proposal for that project seeking funds for the next discovery.
For Dr. Berry, the MacArthur Foundation's largess came in the nick of time. A nonrenewable grant from the Exxon Foundation was running out in the middle of his ambitious project to create economic models predicting the impact of technological advances on the demand for raw materials. Because the study involved such a mix of disciplines, Berry had difficulty getting funds from any single government agency. ''The project was about to die half-finished,'' he recalls.
Then, in January, the MacArthur Foundation stepped in. Not only does he expect to finish the project with the money, but he also has the means to take a sabbatical from his teaching duties to write.
In some cases both the financial means and recognition a MacArthur fellowship bring may do more than just prevent a research project from withering. Dr. Hopfield of CalTech says that with research funds as scarce as they are, ''I might have been lured out of science. The sometimes discouraging question is whether you have the financial means to do the best science that can be done.''
That, he believes, may be one of the MacArthur award's main effects. ''With the MacArthur around, that will be one incentive to keep people in.''
The awards, however, have not been targeted strictly at academics. Boston arts innovator Elma Lewis, author and poet Robert Penn Warren, and filmmaker John Sayles are among 94 people who have been awarded from $24,000 to $60,000, depending on their age, for each year of their fellowships.
The seemingly scattershot approach of the secret selection process has led some to term the fellowships ''genius awards'' - a label foundation officials vehemently reject. Yet some observers suggest this is the end result and wonder if the efforts are not misplaced. After all, Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity not during the comfort of his later years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., but while toiling as a patent clerk in Zurich, Switzerland.
But others say such concerns are moot points. ''These awards are in the original spirit of the Nobel Prize,'' claims CalTech's Hopfield. ''They're a tremendously gratifying boost.''