Money is essential to science, and at the same time it can be a dangerous corrupter. There’s a common argument, for instance, that a lot of biomedical research is untrustworthy because it is done at the behest of Big Pharma dollars — it’s more persuasive to people than it should be, because there is a grain of truth to it, and it would be easy to get sucked into the lucrative world of the industry shill. However, we also have a counterbalance: scientists don’t go into research because they want to be rich, and we are also educated with a set of principles that puts the integrity of our observations above all. But we also have to be honest: there is temptation, and there are tradeoffs, and there are scientists who lose sight of their principles when the stakes get higher.
We have sources of funding that are supposed to be independent of politics or ideological distortion, institutions like the NIH and NSF. Of course, we know they aren’t pure — witness the influence of the religious right in crippling support for stem cell research — but for the most part we can at least feel secure that most of the money is distributed by scientists, for scientists, and that scientific values dominate.
There is a second kind of funding available that tug at the scientist, whether it’s a pharmaceutical company, a military arms company, or an industrial conglomerate, that do stir some ethical concerns (or the potential of ethical concerns) that at least have one shard of hope to offer: they all ultimately want something that will work. They need scientists to generate innovations and build improvements on existing ideas, even if they may also pressure one to take shortcuts or hide confounding results. Scientists can work under those conditions and make progress. Don’t ask us to make up data, and we can operate.
But what about a tobacco company that wants to obscure information about health problems with their own obfuscating ‘data’ to cast doubt? What about a mining concern that wants a fudged environmental report that downplays the impact of their operations? I think we’d all agree that this third class are cases where the scientist has betrayed his mission, and has violated a cardinal principle, that is, to follow the evidence where ever it may lead.
How about an institution that hands out large grants with the expectation that the work will help reconcile science and religion, or that it will actually find evidence of a deity?
I’d class that with my third group, the funding source that wants a particular conclusion and can’t be trusted to be scrupulous about following the evidence where ever it may lead. They have an agenda, and it is one of the most corrupting and untrustworthy causes of all, religion. They already know the answer, and they only want to pay for results that can be interpreted to bolster their unsupportable claims. Even if they are not asking that anyone fake evidence, we know that any line of inquiry that leads away from their desired answer will be abandoned, even if it is leading to the right answer. They are antithetical to good science.
Such an organization exists: the Templeton Foundation. And, boy are they loaded, with a massive endowment and the willingness to throw large sums of money around. Scarily huge sums — the kind of money that will tempt even the most principled scientist to compromise a little bit.
The Templeton Foundation has every right to do this. They should be allowed to offer you a million dollars to make up a story to prop up their superstitious mythology, and they should also have the right to offer you a million dollars if you will let them sleep with your spouse. I would argue, though, that we also have a moral obligation to refuse either of those offers, and the fact that anyone would make that kind of offer is an indication of a kind of ethical bankruptcy on their part.
Templeton is wily, though. They don’t make suggestions quite that blatant. Instead, they hand out money to scientists who they already know are sympathetic to their aims, who also want to see god in the universe. They also offer grants to scientific conferences, saying in essence, “Please include a discussion of the place of faith in science…you don’t have to agree with it, but you must be aware that it is important to many people,” and organizers take the money. They go to science magazines (like Seed) and buy ad space, just like Bio-Rad or Tanqueray Gin, and push their philosophy as if it belongs there. They blur the edges everywhere they can.
The devil’s seduction techniques are devious and subtle, but there’s no hiding what he ultimately wants.
That’s what makes these decisions difficult — it isn’t as simple as a demand to endorse their god on each individual’s part, it’s the gestalt, the assembly of a body of associations that the Templeton Foundation clearly hopes will add a scientific luster to their religious goals. Each little pot of money goes out with the intent of tightening the link between science and religion, and increasing the dependency of investigators on their largesse. It’s a worry, because they clearly have a vision of what answer science should give, and that in itself is the antithesis of good science.
So I have to commend Jerry Coyne for turning down participation in a Templeton-sponsored event (and for sharing the correspondence on the topic). It’s not an intrinsically bad event — it’s the World Science Festival in New York, which looks like it could be informative and entertaining — but the Templeton Foundation has paid their money and has their name prominently slapped up there on the advertising. The Templeton gets to piggy-back their mission on the authority of the science being presented, and that’s not comfortable.
I repeat, the meeting itself isn’t bad, but it is tainted by the support of the Templeton Foundation, and that foundation does not support such meetings because they support science — they support religion, and want to draw science into its embrace. That is grounds for concern. If you want one reason to avoid Templeton like it was a plague rat, look at the Biologos site set up by Francis Collins with Templeton support. That is the future of Templetonian science — facile garbage where quantum physics is dragooned into somehow, magically providing a god a superficially scientific mechanism for intervention. He seriously wants to argue that an invisible god making undetectable changes in the world is scientific…and the Templeton gladly funds that nonsense.
We need to make a stand now, before Templeton worms their fingers into more scientific pies. Turn down invitations from Templeton-affiliated events, and learn to recognize the Templeton logo as a symbol for dubious work trying to exploit science to prop up superstition.
And I also hope that Seed can afford to abstain from taking their ad money in the future.