Sunday, April 10, 2011

Thoughts on Martin Rees and the Templeton Prize

by Salman Hameed

Like many things in life, the issue of science-funding by the Templeton Foundation is complex. I have posted my thoughts on this several times before (for example, see The Templeton Foundation Dilemma and Some Thoughts on the Templeton Foundation). There is no question that they have a particular vision of science & religion interaction. But I think that vision has also evolved over time. They fund a broad range of topics, with many mundane projects that don't make the news.Then they have supported the high profile World Science Festival - which has been fantastic for the promotion of science. But they also made the spectacularly poor decision of funding a prayer study (but to their credit, they were open about the negative results). But then I have also heard of some course-correction after the prayer study debacle.

Then we have the Templeton Prize. There have been some usual criticism against it: They give the prize to those scientists that are working to merge science with religion (a big no-no in the sciences - and I tend to agree with it). But then last year, the prize went to totally non-controversial biologist Francisco Ayala - who actually argues against the "entanglement of science & religion". However, he is a religious scientist - and the foundation still found itself facing some criticism. I thought Ayala was a great choice as he has been fighting the menace of creationism for a while.

Earlier this week, Martin Rees was awarded the Templeton Prize. Nidhal had a post about it on Wednesday and he will have more to say about that tomorrow. I think the choice of Martin Rees is fantastic - and in some ways it addresses some of the usual criticisms. Here is a very very well-respected astronomer, who is not a believer but respects those who believe. When I heard about the news I thought  - well, this is one choice that will probably not generate too much controversy. I was wrong. The brouhaha has been limited - but it is there. The criticism now centers on Rees being a sell-out (for example, see Jerry Coyne's article in the Guardian). On the flip side, Mark Vernon, also in the Guardian, argues that the choice of Rees is a turning point in the "God Wars" - and I think he is equally off-base.

The reality is that these arguments will continue even if Dawkins is given this award. I think some of the criticism of the Templeton Foundation has been fair - and the foundation has responded to some of these criticisms fairly. There is indeed a tension here - but if this tension pulls the foundation in the right direction, then we should applaud. The choice of Martin Rees, I think, is a result of this positive exchange. If the Templeton Foundation has indeed been evolving (I think it has been), then we should form our judgement on case-by-case basis.

I think Martin Rees is a fantastic choice for this year's award. 


Mohamed said...

Thanks for this fair and balanced opinion, the most on this whole issue that I've seen.

Salman, I'll ask you a question that I also asked Nidhal: do you think Templeton-funded projects have produced any interesting or important discoveries?

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Mohamed.

You have asked an excellent question. I have not looked into the details. However, I know that some of their money is going into research into the promising area of origins of altruism - and some good people are associated with it. Similarly, they have funded books that have made valuable contributions. For example. Elaine Ecklund's book "What Scientists Think about Religion", was at least partly supported by a Templeton grant. The book has some shortcomings, but overall, it has made some very useful contribution in the field. And I already mentioned the support for the World Science Festival - which may not fall in the category of "discovery" but is very useful.

But are other private foundations different? Carnegie, Sloan, and Keck have funded telescopes - and so they may get exposure through that. What kind of criteria should we use to evaluate these different foundations? I think it gets tricky.

obreption said...

The issue of funding is rightly discussed. Hubble himself benefitted from funds which we would now regard as being a bit 'cranky'. Andrew Carnegie's foundation has also been revalued, given that there was always exploitation in their accumulation of wealth. Having said that, I found your blog a rational place to air these topics.

Martin Rees is quite a catch for any prize or award. He's quite well known with his position in the Royal Society and of course the House of Lords, and possibly more importantly a guest editor of BBC Radio 4 Today programme, which reaches the scientifically challenged - the grey, middle-class sector.

Keep up the good work!

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Obreption.

I see that you have an interesting post on Templetonian yourself :)

And one on Iqbal's fantastic poem, Shikwah.

obreption said...

Thanks, Salman. I like to do a mix of various topics and will try and follow your blog on my travels. This is a great forum for speaking about many things.
I'm going into some music issues which are causing problems in some parts of the Scottish Presbyterian church, where they think instrumental music may not be write. One finds this elsewhere.

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