Separation of Church and Science

Researchers say a new institute created by a foundation with a spiritual mission will fund legitimate work.
August 1, 2006

Physicists and cosmologists whose research is too theoretical for federal funding may have a new granting body to turn to, so long as they don’t mind using a little money from a foundation that has historically dedicated itself to promoting scientific work that has spiritual repercussions.

The Foundational Questions Institute, founded with $6.2 million from the $1.1 billion John Templeton Foundation, announced its first round of grants Monday, for projects that have “broad implications for our understanding of the deep or ‘ultimate’ nature of reality,” according to the Institute’s Web site.

So far, all of the institute’s money is from the Templeton Foundation, which has often been criticized by scientists for attempting to blur the lines between science and religion.

Even skeptics, though, suggested that the new institute, which used the Templeton money as seed money and is run completely separately, could be good for science.

Max Tegmark, scientific director of the institute and associate physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that he was said that he was skeptical when the Templeton Foundation first approached him, but that the institute money comes with “no strings attached,” he said. Charles Harper, senior vice president of the Templeton Foundation and a planetary scientist, said the hope is that the institute will attract money from other foundations as well.

The institute received 172 applications from around the world for the first round of grants, and Tegmark said the institute modeled its grant review process on that of the National Science Foundation, which uses panels of scientists to look over proposals.

The funded proposals, Tegmark said, are for projects that are often so theoretical or unexplored that they are unlikely to get funding from federal agencies. Some of the funded work will have scientists examining, for example, the nature of time, and whether there are other universes beyond the one that humans observe, and if scientists are looking for extraterrestrial life in the wrong places.

Tegmark, who said he is not religious at all, said the institute could be an exciting, efficient way for some of what he called the “big questions” to get funded. “Usually the way philanthropy is done is at cocktail parties,” Tegmark said. “Rich person X meets scientist Y, and gets convinced to write a check. Peer review is a much more cost-effective way to get results.”

As to the Templeton Foundation’s involvement, Tegmark added that he thinks it’s natural for theologians and philosophers to be interested in work that can reflect on the nature of the universe. Harper said that “really big questions have intrinsic philosophical depth, and are therefore theologically important.”

One of the recent research endeavors that Templeton drew criticism for was an investigation conducted by researchers at the Harvard Medical School into the effects of prayer by strangers on medical patients. The researchers concluded that prayer did not improve patients’ conditions.

But even some of the foundations most regular critics said that the new institute seems O.K.

Lawrence Krauss, professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western Reserve University, said that he hasn’t applied for Templeton Foundation money in the past when he felt Templeton’s agenda was to use science to validate spiritual ideas. Krauss, however, said that the Institute for Foundational Questions does seem to be independent, and that he would consider applying in the next round of grants. As he glanced over some of the funded proposals, his initial assessment was “not bad, but not too impressive.”
Ken Olum, an associate research professor of physics at Tufts University, is one of the newly announced grantees. Olum, whose work will look to prove that faster-than-light travel is impossible, said that he “did not hesitate” to apply for a grant. “This meets my standard of independence,” he said. Olum will get $85,905, which he said can go a long way in theoretical physics because, rather than expensive equipment, theoretical physicists most often need people.

Olum said he was told by the institute that the funded research should be part time work, rather than monopolizing his time, “because it’s so speculative,” Olum said. Olum added that he had applied for NSF funding, but was rejected. “NSF wanted a more detailed description of what I was going to do,” Olum said. “Theoretical work always has the problem that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to find.”

Sean Carroll, an assistant physics professor at the University of Chicago, said that he has backed out of conferences sponsored by Templeton in the past, because “I didn’t want to participate in anything that makes it look like I’m somehow supporting this mission of reconciling science and religion,” Carroll said, “even if only in a very indirect way.” Carroll said that he’s “kind of happy and impressed” by the new endeavor, though. Like Krauss, Carroll said that, as long as the Templeton Foundation doesn’t start trumpeting the institute as their creation, he wouldn’t have a problem applying for a grant.

So far, there has been no trumpeting. A press release announcing the first round of grants didn’t even mention the Templeton Foundation. In the FAQ on the institute's Web site, one question asks: “I’ve read that the goal of [the Templeton Foundation] is to ‘reconcile science and religion.’ Is this part of the [Foundational Questions Institute] mission?” The answer: “No.”

Alan Guth, a professor of physics at MIT, is on the institute’s scientific advisory panel. He said that he would have objected had he seen any actions that threatened the independence of the science that the institute will fund. “Max Tegmark told me that the Templeton Foundation really was willing to just turn the money over to him and his organization, and let scientists process the applications,” Guth said. “As long as any organization is going to contribute money on that basis, it seems to me something good for science.”


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