The Templeton Foundation is known for supporting research that is audacious in concept or off the beaten path, exploring what it calls the “Big Questions.” Recent seven-figure grants include research on a hot debate within evolutionary theory, and some puzzling paradoxes of how life on Earth began.
We check in with the John Templeton Foundation now and then, both because it’s a major funder of science research with more than $3 billion in assets, and because it funds some fascinating work driven by its interest in weighty problems ranging from genetics to the nature of free will.
This is no ordinary foundation.
It’s impossible to talk about Templeton without mentioning that the foundation is polarizing in the scientific community. Some researchers are uneasy about its simultaneous support for theology and hard science, and sometimes even projects at the juncture of the two. There’s also the fact that the late president of the foundation, Jack Templeton, who died in 2015, was an evangelical Christian and a big donor to conservative causes. (His daughter, Heather Templeton Dill, now runs the foundation.)
But the people at Templeton don’t seem to mind the criticism, and in fact, like backing marginal or uncharted areas of study that might turn off other funders. And controversies aside, the foundation funds many highly reputable researchers doing compelling work.
A few of its recent, multimillion-dollar grants are perfect examples of Templeton’s affinity for difficult topics and researchers who don’t mind rankling their peers. They also demonstrate Templeton’s interest in topics that don’t slot easily into one discipline.
First up, there’s a grant for $8 million to a three-year, international program to test out a hotly debated perspective in evolutionary biology called extended evolutionary synthesis. Briefly, EES proposes a revamped understanding of evolution that expands on the standard approach known as modern synthesis. To be perfectly clear, this is not some kind of attempt to challenge the theory of evolution. Its proponents want to build on modern synthesis to give more weight to non-genetic processes such as how the environment directly shapes organisms’ traits.
The funding supports 22 separate projects at eight main institutions to build a body of data on predictions you’d expect based on EES. While the leaders of the team are some of the champions of updated model, not all of the researchers involved are committed to it.
Again, while EES doesn’t challenge the theory of evolution, or even the core tenets of modern synthesis, it is a source of contention among biologists. You can read a point-counterpoint here, including the pro-EES stance from some of the well-respected Templeton grantees. That piece is pretty level-headed, but it can get feisty! Not one to back away from a tussle, Templeton has sent a significant chunk of funding toward the issue.
Another recent grant toward the study of evolution is less controversial, but also super-interesting, focusing specifically on human evolution and how we developed cognition. The $3.2 million grant to Indiana University and the Stone Age Institute funds an archaeological approach to human cognition, studying what factors led human ancestors to develop skills like making tools, developing language, and seeking out information.
This is another big area of interest for the funder—what makes us human, and how we came to be the way we are. In 2014, the foundation gave $4.9 million to an Arizona State University institute founded by famed paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, to take an interdisciplinary look at how we became human.
Finally, a third recent Templeton project worth noting dials back the clock even further to study how life formed in the early days of the planet. The foundation awarded $5.4 million to the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME), which recently announced awards to seven research teams studying the origins of life.
Research on the origins of life has surged in the past decade or so and drawn attention from private funders, including an eight-year commitment from the Simons Foundation starting in 2013, which expanded on a cross-disciplinary Harvard program.
The Templeton grant, in particular, is focused on a few paradoxes that have scientists scratching their heads about how life got over some of its early hurdles. For example, there’s the fact that water is necessary for life to exist, but key molecules like RNA degrade in water. Also, when you add energy to organic material, it turns to tar, not complex life forms. This suite of awards will fund researchers in a variety of disciplines to figure out how early organic material became life as we know it.
At the helm of this project is Steve Benner, a molecular biophysicist and chemist who has been at the forefront of origins of life studies as well as the emerging field of synthetic biology. Benner drew major attention in 2013 when he floated the idea that the building blocks of life may have originated on Mars and then made their way to Earth. That kind of thinking is music to the Templeton Foundation’s ears.
These grants share another hallmark of Templeton funding, and of a lot of private science funding, for that matter: They cross disciplines. The study of uncharted territories may require knowledge from many disciplines. Templeton places a high premium on bringing together researchers with diverse expertise, and these grants on evolution and origins of life are key examples.
From everything I’ve learned about the Templeton Foundation, they’re not the dogmatic Christian outfit some fear them to be. But there will always likely be trepidation associated with Templeton’s science funding and ambilvalence about how the “Big Questions” framing influences research. That trepidation actually reflects one of the hallmarks and strengths of private science funding, however—these players can address subjects that other institutions might shrug off as messy or unpopular, and perhaps push some boundaries as a result.