Well, Massimo Pigliucci and I have had our differences, but we’re together on one issue. According to Rationally Speaking, Massimo found out that the publisher of an academic book he was writing wanted to co-publish it with the John Templeton Foundation. After doing some poking around on the Templeton website (I’d recommend this only to those with a strong stomach), Massimo declined. He found too much woo, too much invidious political conservatism, too much dubious “scholarship.” Go read what he found.
And then he questions some of his colleagues who take Templeton money about why they did it. We hear the usual dissimulations and rationalizations, and Massimo calls them out, listing the three reasons he hears most often:
* “I’m independent anyway.” The first response is that there is a distinction between the agenda of the funding source and what one does as an independent scholar. This is certainly true, and I was assured (and have no reason to doubt) that Templeton would have had no editorial say whatsoever in what I would have written in my book. Then again, research into the practice of science does show that the source of one’s money makes a difference (often unconsciously) on the outcome. The case in point is that of medical research that is much more likely to find a given drug effective if the researchers received funding from the pharmaceutical industry rather than from government agencies. At the very least one ought to be aware of the danger and not just dismiss the possibility out of hand. (This, of course, is a separate point from the one I made above concerning one’s name lending credibility to an institution whose ideological positions one may not share.)
I’ve found this first reason the most common. Templeton’s endowment is said to be around a billion dollars, and they dispense $70 million dollars per year to scientists purporting to answer “The Big Questions.” Among scientists who take Templeton money are the physicist Brian Greene (it funds his World Science Festival) and Martin Nowak at Harvard, whose research center nabbed an astounding $10.5 million over four years. And even the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), has an 18-year, $5.3 million dollar grant from Templeton to promote a “dialogue on science, ethics, and religion.”
As to whether the money corrupts the research of its recipients, who knows? Of course they’ll deny it, but so do politicians who take money from lobbyists and PACs. As Massimo points out in the comments, the effect of Templeton funding on research outcome hasn’t been studied. We do know that Templeton fundees often produce books that are completely congenial to Templeton’s aims: these include recent books by Elaine Ecklund and Martin Nowak. Ecklund, in particular, seems to have consistently misrepresented her research findings to convey the impression that scientists are more religious and spiritual than we think. And there’s at least one instance in which Templeton apparently vetted for approval the contents of a book it funded: Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct.
But we really don’t need to know the effect on research to point out that taking money from a right-wing organization, one that unashamedly promotes pure woo as well as science, gives the appearance of conflict. And it’s that appearance that should be reason enough to abjure Templeton funds.
* “It’s the same with the federal government.” NIH, NSF and other governmental agencies also have agendas, the argument goes, because the federal government has an agenda, and these days that agenda is significantly tilted toward an anti-science, pro-religion trajectory, largely because of the influence of Congressional Republicans. I find this argument rather specious. I am not aware of any evidence of this sort of influence in the pattern of NSF funding (with which I am most familiar), and that’s probably because there are many layers between Congressional Republicans and, say NSF or NIH officers, and because the funding process is entirely handled by professional scientists. Of course, one could very reasonably question funding amounts and priorities at the level of the entire federal research budget, and that discussion would indeed be political and ideological. But at the very least we are talking about a government of elected officials, not a private outlet that is free to push whatever agenda it wishes to push. There is also, of course, the question of whether a scientist should accept money from specific federal agencies whose goals may be ethically questionable, such as the Department of Defense. And indeed I am sympathetic toward scientists who do reject such funding, and somewhat critical of those who accept it.
* “Someone else would do it anyway.” This is the ethically most naive response I have encountered. First, this may not be true, as Templeton has gained influence and credibility precisely because a good number of legitimate scientists and other scholars have accepted their money. The Discovery Institute (the Intelligent Design “think” tank based in Seattle), on the contrary, has not succeeded in part because legitimate scientists have ostracized them. Second, one’s integrity is not helped, nor is one’s ethical responsibility diminished, by the thought that someone else would have stepped in and gotten the money, so we might as well. If we adopted that sort of standard, all kinds of unethical behavior would become acceptable on pragmatic grounds, the academic version of realpolitik.
To paraphrase Richard Dawkins on why he wouldn’t debate William Lane Craig, “It looks good on Templeton’s c.v., not so much on yours.” Scientists who take Templeton money become prize horses in their Augean Stable, trotted out on the Templeton website and paraded around to show the scientific credibility of the organization.
Massimo then asked his erstwhile editor a question:
. . . why exactly do you guys need the JTF, particularly as you have an excellent reputation and the JTF people will have no editorial input into the series? Answer: because Templeton has money, and money buys publicity, and publicity sells books. There is capitalism at work, my friends.
As I pointed out in a comment on Massimo’s site, the argument that “I’m independent and the money is being put to good use” is disingenuous. How odious must a funding source be before a scientist will refuse to take money from it? Would you take money from the Council of Conservative Citizens (a descendant of the White Citizens Council) to study ethnic differences? Lots of scientists take money from the Defense Department; I wouldn’t.
The fact is that scientists are so greedy for grants, and the funding climate is now so dreadful that no matter how tainted one’s grant money will be, scientists will always line up with their hands out, eager to receive the largesse. And they’ll always be able to rationalize it. As Darwin said about another issue, “Great is the power of steady misrepresentation.”
Once again (and probably in vain), I call upon my scientific colleagues to reject money from the Templeton Foundation. And if they do take it, as have Martin Nowak and Brian Greene, I ask them to publicly justify how they can take the money in light of the other conservative and pro-woo activities of Templeton.
With Templeton, it’s always about the money. We’ve known this for a long time, and it’s curious that it took Massimo so long to realize it. Maybe he hasn’t been paying attention, but kudos to him for calling Templeton out.