Jack Szostak, at Harvard, won last year’s Nobel Prize for his work on telomerase, the enzyme that maintains the ends of chromosomes. His main research interest has now turned to understanding the origin of life.
Szostak just sent a letter to Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, protesting the use of its space to host today’s Templeton Prize award. Here, with Jack’s permission, is the letter he sent. I am not sure whether he was aware that it was Cicerone himself (at least according to the Guardian) who nominated today’s awardee, a NAS member.
I was surprised and upset to see that the NAS is allowing the Templeton Foundation to announce the winner of the Templeton Prize in the historic Lecture Hall of the Academy. It is inappropriate and counter-productive for the NAS, a scientific organization, to interact in this way with an overtly religious group such as the Templeton Foundation.
We are not a faith-based organization – we ask questions and seek the answers in evidence. In a country plagued by ignorance and superstition, the NAS ought to be a beacon of coherent rational thinking and skeptical inquiry. If science is, as George Ellery Hale stated, our guide to truth, then religion is clearly incompatible with science, as should be apparent from considerations of faith versus inquiry.
Organizations that promote faith and religious belief have no place in the NAS, and to see the NAS hosting a Templeton event sends the message to the public that science and religion are completely compatible and indeed that science-religion interactions should be fostered. I disagree strongly, and I am very disappointed by this action of the NAS. Indeed, to host such an event encourages a misrepresentation not only of the organization, but of the members. Just last night Rabbi Wolpe publicly claimed that over half of the elected members of the Academy are theists. More critically, the Academy is misrepresented by this event. Our mission is to inquire into issues of national import and to do so as scientists. We have no mandate to accommodate any position of faith whether based in religion or other prejudice.
The fact that the winner is an NAS member is irrelevant. A small minority of NAS members may be religious, but they should promote their personal religious views separately from the NAS.
At the least a statement from the NAS is needed at this time, clarifying its independence and, I would hope, declaring the decision to host this event a mistake. The Academy’s image needs to be mended both for the public and its members.
Jack W. Szostak