The John Templeton Foundation: Faith in Science
The latest issue of Nature magazine takes on the issue of the Templeton Foundation funding that has been directed towards scientists and in particular the funding of efforts to find some bridge between science and religion:
At the headquarters of the John Templeton Foundation, a dozen kilometres outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the late billionaire seems to watch over everything. John Templeton’s larger-than-life bust stands at one end of the main conference room. His life-sized portrait smiles down from a side wall. His face peers out of framed snapshots propped on bookshelves throughout the many offices.
It seems fitting that Templeton is keeping an eye on the foundation that he created in 1987, and that consumed so much of his time and energy. With a current endowment estimated at US$2.1 billion, the organization continues to pursue Templeton’s goal of building bridges between science and religion. Each year, it doles out some $70 million in grants, more than $40 million of which goes to research in fields such as cosmology, evolutionary biology and psychology.
You may not be aware of the Templeton Foundation, but it has influenced many activities of which you might be familiar. E.g., the Bloggingheads website has received funding for its work, as well as some of the scientists/writers associated with Biologos.
As generous as the foundation’s support is, however, many scientists find it troubling — and some see it as a threat. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, Illinois, calls the foundation “sneakier than the creationists”. Through its grants to researchers, Coyne alleges, the foundation is trying to insinuate religious values into science. “It claims to be on the side of science, but wants to make faith a virtue,” he says.
But other researchers, both with and without Templeton grants, say that they find the foundation remarkably open and non-dogmatic. “The Templeton Foundation has never in my experience pressured, suggested or hinted at any kind of ideological slant,” says Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic, a magazine that debunks pseudoscience, who was hired by the foundation to edit an essay series entitled ‘Does science make belief in God obsolete?’
This concern over Templeton’s reach has been a topic among some science bloggers for a while now, and it does not seem to be abated.
There is reason to worry about how (even well intentioned) donors affect science, as illustrated by Templeton’s involvement in ID:
But external peer review hasn’t always kept the foundation out of trouble. In the 1990s, for example, Templeton-funded organizations gave book-writing grants to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist now at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, and William Dembski, a philosopher now at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. After obtaining the grants, both later joined the Discovery Institute — a think-tank based in Seattle, Washington, that promotes intelligent design. Other Templeton grants supported a number of college courses in which intelligent design was discussed. Then, in 1999, the foundation funded a conference at Concordia University in Mequon, Wisconsin, in which intelligent-design proponents confronted critics.
Those awards became a major embarrassment in late 2005, during a highly publicized court fight over the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Dover, Pennsylvania. A number of media accounts of the intelligent design movement described the Templeton Foundation as a major supporter — a charge that Charles Harper, then senior vice-president, was at pains to deny.
Some foundation officials were initially intrigued by intelligent design, Harper told The New York Times. But disillusionment set in — and Templeton funding stopped — when it became clear that the theory was part of a political movement from the Christian right wing, not science. Today, the foundation website explicitly warns intelligent-design researchers not to bother submitting proposals: they will not be considered.
The foundation’s critics are unimpressed. Avowedly antireligious scientists such as Coyne and Kroto see the intelligent-design imbroglio as a symptom of their fundamental complaint that religion and science should not mix at all.
John Templeton himself was probably best described as a progressive Christian with strong tendencies toward the eclectic. Recommend reading the whole article at Nature for more details.
I have no personal grievance against the Templeton Foundation, and I am not as concerned (as Coyne et. al.) about their money influencing science. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the Templeton Foundation work is part of a larger picture of what the future will be. As governments cut budgets for science there will be an increasing dependence upon courting private foundations to make up the difference at educational and research institutions, and while scientists often pride themselves on their independence they still must find funding. One wonders what influence billionaire philanthropists will bring to fields of science.