Sunday, April 04, 2010

Some thoughts on the Templeton Foundation

Things get a bit tricky when it gets to the Templeton Foundation. It is perhaps the biggest source of private funding for projects dealing with science & religion. But does it have its own agenda? Perhaps, more importantly, is it trying to sneak religion into science?

A few years ago when Laura Sizer and I were planning our science & religion lecture series at Hampshire College, we thought about writing a grant to the Templeton Foundation. However, we were also aware of the surrounding controversy (especially amongst some scientists) and had some of our own misgivings. We decided against applying to the Foundation and instead got funding locally from Hampshire. However, we have made it a point to ask our speakers, when they come to Hampshire, their views about seeking funding from Templeton Foundation. The verdict has decidedly been mixed - about 50-50. There are some who not only have misgivings about the Foundation but would have also rejected our invitation had our lecture series been sponsored by Templeton. Then there are others, including one past Templeton award winner, who see no problem with the Foundation and state very clearly that grants from Templeton come without any strings. I think it is becoming clear that the Templeton Foundation, while it has its own goals of promoting religion, does not interfere in the research projects it funds. The choice of projects it funds, sure enough, match with its broad worldview of science-religion harmony. From a purely pragmatic perspective, Templeton may end up financing some good projects (along with some bad ones too) that otherwise may not get traditional funding at all. There is indeed a stigma attached to Templeton money - so you have to decide if the reception of your project will be affected by that or not (and if you even care about it).

The recent Templeton Prize winner is Francis Ayala. This is a smart move on the part of Templeton and Science acknowledges that this may bolster its shift to scientific mainstream:
In 2005, molecular biologist Matthew Gibson wondered whether to accept a grant he had received from the John Templeton Foundation to study how the apparently random process of cell
division leads to a predictable honeycombed pattern in the epithelium of many organisms. Gibson, then a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston, knew that the foundation was interested in how order emerges from randomness, a pet theme for proponents of intelligent design (ID). If he took the grant, Gibson wondered, would he be playing into a religious agenda?

Gibson was not the only scientist to harbor such doubts about the foundation, which seeks to promote a dialogue between science and religion. In the past, Templeton has supported conferences and projects linked to the Discovery Institute, an ID think tank. But it subsequently disavowed support for the ID movement, allaying the fears of many critics. This week, the foundation took another step in that direction by awarding its annual $1.5 million Templeton Prize to Francisco Ayala, a priest-turned-biologist who for decades has campaigned against the teaching of creationism and ID in the science classroom.

The 76-year-old Ayala, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has sought to foster mutual respect between science and religion through lectures and writings on topics such as morality. "If they are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters," says Ayala, a former president of AAAS (publisher of Science). He says the conflict has grown less intense since Templeton funds helped to launch a program in the mid-1990s called Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion at AAAS, which continues to be supported by the foundation. Some scientists objected at the time, he recalls. "They said, ‘What business does science have talking to religion?’ I don't think there are many thoughtful scientists who would make that point today."

And about projects it funds:

Even those who are put off by Templeton's mission agree that the foundation does not attempt to influence the outcomes of the research and discussions it sponsors. "I am not enthusiastic about the message they seem to be selling to the public—that science and religion are not incompatible; I think there is real tension between the two," says Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist at the University of Texas, Austin, who has been an outspoken critic of religion. "But for an organization with a message, they are pretty good at not being intrusive in the activities they fund. I don't wish them well, but I don't think they are particularly insidious or dangerous."

The foundation has also recognized the pitfalls of associating with the ID community after being criticized by scientists for giving a grant in 1999 to ID proponent William Dembski, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, and later to Guillermo Gonzales, an astronomer at Iowa State University who used the funds to research a book arguing in favor of ID. In a 2007 letter to the Los Angeles Times, Templeton's former vice president for communications explained that "[i]n the past, we have given grants to scientists who have gone on to identify themselves as members of the intelligent-design community. We understand that this could be misconstrued by some to suggest that we implicitly support the movement, but this was not our intention at the time, nor is it today."

Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, says that "Templeton realized that the relationship was a liability to their mission."

Gibson says he decided to accept the foundation's money "after poking around and finding nothing fishy." Now a researcher at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri, Gibson admits that he may have been influenced by need. "At the time, I don't think anybody else would have funded what we were doing." But he's pleased with how things turned out, including a paper in Nature. "The fact that the [foundation] appreciated a philosophical element of the research—which I was neutral about—is fine with me," he says.

Read the full Science article here. Also see a post about 2008 Templeton Prize: Templeton Prize for Priest-Cosmologist.


Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm. This seems to be a general problem. For example, how this case different than receiving DoD money (for non-classified, openly publishable work) while being concerned about effects of funding basic science through military/defense spending? (Perhaps that's covered in the article. I don't have access.)

Salman Hameed said...

Hmm...may be not much different - especially if you equate with non-classified, openly publishable work. I guess for that also, one may have to go on a case-by-case basis.

I don't know. Something doesn't seem right with this analogy. I can't point my finger at it - but something is bugging me about it. I will comment again when I get a clearer idea.


Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Could the cause of the discomfort be the idea of equating a government agency with something like the Templeton foundation?

Perhaps it is the war angle? How about a hypothetical? Let's say the field is psychology and the funding sources are a propaganda department of the government (targeting foreigners perhaps) and some junk food marketing company. Once again, let's say the research results are publishable in both cases but it is perhaps known what general areas can get funding.

Here's another thing that makes me giggle sometimes. People (even some people here in Turkey) sometimes quote Robert R. Wilson (from here):

But in 1969, when Wilson was in the hot seat testifying before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Sen. John Pastore demanded to know how a multimillion-dollar particle accelerator improved the security of the country. Wilson said the experimental physics machine had "nothing at all" to do with security, and the senator persisted.

"It has only to do," Wilson told the lawmakers, "with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."

Lovely quote, isn't it? The effects of that kind of thinking must have lasted through decades. We see evidence of this by noting that the SSC didn't happen and the people are talking about CERN now.

I cannot know what's bugging you and for all I know the analogies I'm trying to make might be deeply flawed anyway. In my case the social/political machinery behind much of the funding for (somewhat basic) science has always made me rather uncomfortable. It isn't necessarily just the defense angle, it is, rather, the impure, as it were, motives that I suspect are lurking somewhere in the political realm themselves that bother me in general.

Salman Hameed said...

Okay so two things:
a) I think I was thinking more about different set of ethics. Perhaps, with the DoD, one may be dealing with moral issues, whereas with the Templeton, it is about a group whose ideas one may not like - but its ideas won't be considered immoral (though some may put Templeton in the same category - but I think that would be a stretch).

b) Yes, different fields have to deal with DoD funding issues in different ways. But I think we know when something is up - and an appeal to ignorance, which many do after the fact, simply won't do. Robotics researchers have to be careful, so do nuclear physicists.

So how to equate the quote about Fermi Lab? It is more about national pride. If we start taking out pride from funding motivations, we won't have any left :) The ongoing mission to Pluto (Pluto-Kuiper Express) was sold as exploring the only planet (and yes, it is a planet, dammit!) discovered by an American (and also not visited by a spacecraft). I think this is totally fine.

On the more controversial level, Scott Atran - our last S&R speaker - addressed the issue of human terrain system. Check out this piece from Science: Should Social Scientists Help the US Fight Terror?

martin said...