[See also updates at the end of the post]
I just saw the news (here
- I’m not sure if this was made public earlier) about the John Templeton Foundation
's $10 million multi-part grant
to fund “Foundational Questions in Evolutionary Biology
” (FQEB), an initiative to be led by Harvard’s Martin Nowak
Nowak has led what is called the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard and has focused on the mathematical modeling side of evolutionary studies. The first announced effort is to offer fellowships
to scholars pursuing envelope-pushing work on topics in evolution as well as the study of the origin of life.
I would like to learn more about this, but here are a few tidbits from the above links which are interesting. While the name evokes the earlier Templeton funding of the Foundational Questions Institute
(FQXi), this program is more geographically centered (in Boston) and so, while not involving a new independent physical institute, it nonetheless is less “virtual” than FQXi. FQXi exists mainly to provide grants to scholars whose work in foundational physics might not otherwise garner funding from traditional sources. FQEB seem to be more people-driven (and Harvard/Boston oriented), and Nowak’s role seems crucial.
Importantly to me, however (as someone who watches Templeton -- see here
-- and “roots” for them to apply their vast resources wisely), the initiative raises more potential controversy in terms of whether pure science will result from this effort versus a bias to search out and rationalize religion-friendly results. (This is not an issue with FQXi, which I think anyone who supports pure physics would be at least broadly pleased with):
- The stated goal includes a reference to "understandings of teleology and concepts of ultimate purpose".
- A Templeton officer says a “next phase of FQEB” will include “rigorous integrative work” with scholars in philosophy and theology.
- The board includes a Divinity professor(!)
- Nowak, who has had affiliations with Templeton for some time, is himself is a committed Christian (was this a necessary if not sufficient fact in spurring this initiative?). A short essay where he expresses some of his views is here.
The reason this is concerning, obviously, is that this country has faced an long and ongoing challenge to keep education in evolutionary biology free from interference from misguided religious folks. The Templeton Foundation has disavowed any support
for the most prominent recent political agitators in this area – the “Intelligent Design” movement -- and I think their efforts in supporting science/religion rapprochement have been harmless (if often wasteful, in my opinion). But why make a big effort in science funding in this crucial and sensitive area (which is a wonderful idea) and then contaminate it with any religiosity at all? That concerns me and I’m worried that it is a big mistake.
[UPDATE 8 Jan.2010: It seems the Templeton newsletter emailed to me on 6th January, which is my first link above, was the first public notice of this; the next blogosphere notice was today and comes from the "Intelligent Design" promoter, William Dembski, here
. My brief opinion of ID is above and in an earlier blog post here
[UPDATE 20 Jan.2010: Templeton has announced funding priorities for the new year
, and, of interest to this blog, they include Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality
and Foundational Questions in the Mathematical Sciences
[UPDATE 21 Jan. 2010: Also interesting to me is Templeton’s recruiting of journalist and blogger Rod Dreher to a post called a director of publications. His new blog is here
(the first post is here
). I assume it is no accident that he is a Christian conservative. There seems to be plenty of circumstantial evidence of an ongoing tension at JTF between the late founder’s clearly non-sectarian, progressive view of the religious impulse and the current Christian conservative leadership.]