Twenty-one people, many of whom are doing work that touches on race relations, same-sex marriage, climate change and other issues that are dominating the news, have each been awarded "genius grants" from the MacArthur Foundation.

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced on Wednesday this year's recipients of the grants that have been awarded since 1981. Recipients can spend the $625,000 any way they like.

As in years past, this year's winners are an eclectic group, including scientists, attorneys, historians, poets, mathematicians, a cartoonist and a documentary filmmaker.

Among the recipients is Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University. Eberhardt has conducted research on racial stereotypes and crime that has prompted the Oakland, California, police department to ask for her help studying racial biases among their officers and how those biases play out on the street.

Others were recognized for their legal work, from attorney Jonathan Rapping, whose organization helps public defenders provide quality representation to indigent clients, to Mary Bonauto, a civil rights attorney who won for "breaking down legal barriers based on sexual orientation and gender identity."

The selection process is shrouded in secrecy. There's no application involved. Instead, anonymous groups make nominations and recommendations to the foundation's board of directors.

Most winners are not widely known outside their fields, but the list has over the years included such writers as Susan Sontag and Karen Russell and filmmaker John Sayles.