The Templeton Foundation I: Buying science

Buying scienceOne of the most insidious programs I’ve ever been invited to apply for (needless to say, I declined) is the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science and Religion. Run in part by the faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, it’s stated aim is offer, “an opportunity to examine the dynamic and creative interface between science and religion.” Or, in my words, to help blur the edges between science and religion. Since a postcard from them just dropped through my door (again) I thought now might be the right time to discuss this program and the foundation that funds it.

First, the fellowship involves journalists getting paid to go to Cambridge and listen to some organized seminars on science and religion. You won’t be surprised to learn there is not one evolutionary biologist (or, for that matter, any kind of biologist) on the advisory board. I find it fascinating that the journalists who attend these fellowships don’t see that they are doing anything wrong. If they were paid to go to a pharmaceutical industry fellowship for a couple of months, listen to talks and then do some private study, most of them would be fired by their editors. I’m not at all clear how this is any different.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The fellowship is just part of a concerted attempt by the Templeton Foundation to co-op the scientific establishment in this country and many others.

I first heard about the Foundation in 2004 when I receiving an e-mail about their Power of Purpose essay competition with a the huge grand prize of $100K (£60K). The winner that year was Nobel prizewinner Charles Townes. What a brilliant idea. First offer a huge sum: more than for the Pulitzer, Mann/Booker, Costa/Whitbread, or Aventis prizes, for instance. You can then attract every scientist with a religious outlook and a wordprocessor. Then just give the prize to the writer with the best scientific credentials. Instant credibility.

What made me want to dig further, however, was discovering two things. First, that same year (2005), I read that the winner of the Templeton prize for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities (prize money of £795K/$1.5M: more than the Nobel prize) was going to speak at the Royal Society, one of the UK’s most prestigious scientific institutions. The expenses were being paid by the Templeton Foundation.

Second, Baroness Susan Greenfield had taken £1M from the Templeton Foundation for the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind (OXCOM) to do scientific research related to religion. What horrified me was that when Greenfield appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in January to talk about the Centre she said almost nothing about the foundation that was funding her. It wasn’t surprising that she didn’t volunteer the information. What was extraordinary to me was that the presenter (John Humphries) didn’t askGreenfield about it (poor research, no doubt). OXCOM was set up to investigate, “how belief physically affects our brains, how religious faith affects experiences such as pain, whether there is a detectable physical difference in the brain between religious and secular faith, and ultimately how the collection of physical matter making up our brains can generate consciousness.” Consequently, if the funding agency is pro-religious, there is a clear possibility for a conflict of interest.

It seems unfair to single Humphries out: none of the other media reports I saw did any more than give the foundation’s name. To me, this was a story missed. In the end, I felt so strongly that I wrote a piece for the Times Higher Educational Supplement and the newsletter of the Association of British Science Writers.

My biggest concern was that, by us journalists not explaining what the Templeton Foundation really is (which I’ll do in detail in detail in a forthcoming blog), we are standing by and letting it buy its way in to the British academic establishment. We are also making respectable (and lucrative, in terms of research money) an area about which we would otherwise be more suspicious.

When I asked the Royal Society why theywere willing to take money from the Templeton Foundation to showcase the winner of the Templeton Prize, their attitude was summed up by the following quote from then Science and Society officer, Scott Keir. “We’re pleased to work with organisations that complement our aims… The Society is responsible for curating and organising the lectures, including the selection of the speakers…The Foundation are supporting the costs of the lecture and are providing other logistical assistance, eg advice on publicity.” They also pointed out that they could not have afforded to pay for the speaker to otherwise. Nor, I speculated, would they have botheredto. That is the point.

If the Templeton Foundation complements the aims of the Royal Society, then it makes me wonder what those aims are. I thought they were to aid progress in science and to promote science to the public, but it seems to me that blurring the boundaries between science and religion would run counter to this agenda.

Next: What the Templeton Foundation really is and who it’s controlled by.

Originally posted on Sunny Bains unedited.