Discovering Spiritual Information through Peer-Reviewed Science
by Kevin Arnold
“Many religious people are not yet inspired to hope that the spiritual future could, or should, be improved from anything that has ever been learned before. Many do not imagine that progress in religion may be possible, perhaps by appreciating ways that sciences have learned to flourish and by being creatively open to a discovery-seeking and future-oriented perspective. For so many religious people, the future of religions seems nothing much beyond the preservation of ancient traditions. Some therefore may not want to consider the possibility of a future of progressively unfolding spiritual discoveries… Could it be possible that the adventure of science can both inspire and assist religion to explore a rich future of “boundless possibilities?”
--Sir John Templeton
Sir John Templeton was one of the most successful investors of the 20th century. He began his impressive career in 1954 with the start of the Templeton Growth Fund Ltd., later adding others, including the Templeton World Fund (1978). By the time these funds were sold in 1992, their combined assets exceeded $22B, so that by 1997, over four million people worldwide had benefited from over $80 billion in valuation. By many accounts, Sir John’s success was owed to the early adoption of a global investment strategy coupled with an incisive value-based and contrarian approach dubbed “the principle of maximum pessimism.” His tolerance for risk and an abiding optimism in the face of mercurial public sentiment (famously captured by his oft-quoted saying “Trouble is Opportunity”) would become a defining feature of his philanthropic financing.
Having been a person of faith since his youth, Sir John noted with increasing concern that many of his friends—particularly the most successful and well-educated—were uninterested in religion, with some going so far as to suggest religion was old fashioned or even obsolete. Of course, the prevailing sentiment in the media was one of a conflict narrative between science and religion, the latter seemingly forever in retreat before an empirical juggernaut. Sir John disagreed with this view, favoring a complementary relationship, and he wondered whether science could lead to spiritual progress. Much like with his earlier financial efforts, Sir John recognized a fruitful investment opportunity. In 1972, he formed the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, an annual cash prize aimed at raising public awareness of the importance and value of religion. Fifteen years later, Sir John would establish the John Templeton Foundation, with the goal of further exploring and encouraging the relationship between science and religion.
At the heart of the Foundation’s major funding is the goal of supporting the discovery of what Sir John called new spiritual information, data that tests or measures spiritual forces, concepts, or realities (e.g. love, prayer, purpose, complexity, infinity etc.). Our aim is, admittedly, uniquely contrarian and abidingly optimistic about what we can discover about reality. To that end, the success of the Foundation is contingent upon the epistemic humility of the Foundation’s grantees and the audiences it serves: an acknowledgement that we know less than 1% about God or creation and that there is still so much to learn. In this space, dogmatism and ideological recalcitrance must be challenged. Sir John felt that empirically grounded insights into the world around us would deepen and nuance our sense of awe and curiosity, ultimately revealing new aspects of God in the same way that studying a painting gives us clues about the painter. This, then, is spiritual progress.
So what kind of basic research does the Foundation invest in? While I refer you to our webpage for a more thorough look at our application process and priorities (www.templeton.org), five recent grants illustrate the Foundation’s ventures in Big Questions at the interface of science and religion:
Origins of Peer Review
Sir John recognized that much of the work supported by the Foundation would be contentious, and he worried that the metaphysical implications of the work might lead detractors to dismiss it as pseudoscience (for example, in his early support of research into the link between spirituality and health). The concern here was not simply related to reputational risk but practicality: it was essential that the research be rigorous if bona fide spiritual information and spiritual progress would result. Thus, the work would have to be of high quality and published in peer-reviewed outlets. The Foundation began its own formal external peer-review process in 1997, based in part on two of Sir John’s principles of contrarian investing:
Sir John was famously leery of the power of group think to suppress originality and creativity, and he often credited much of his success to remaining independent of others’ views. When Foundation staff suggested the use of funding panels to review proposals in 1997, Sir John requested that experts provide their reviews individually (not unlike his portfolio managers, who were also independent). To this day, the Foundation employs an ad hoc system of review.
Sir John requested a range of disciplinary perspectives in peer review, oftentimes exceeding that of the proposal. This emphasis may originate from a nod to his approach to mutual funds diversification. The Foundation regularly employs a range of disciplinary perspectives across a generalist-specialist spectrum to help resolve a proposal’s intrinsic value by ensuring that reviewers do not lose the forest for the trees.
Challenges and Opportunities
The Foundation’s commitment to an ad hoc approach is not grounded in tradition but rather a resistance to consensus building that happens in review. While individualized review is not the norm for most basic science funders, it is clear that alternatives such as expert panels cannot remove subjectivity from the process and recent studies show that they are not reproducible. Panels tend to excel at eliminating the worst proposals from a group; however, their effectiveness at identifying the best ideas is often compromised by sociological pressures and the tendency of experts to triage proposals using “feasibility” measures. This dynamic, coupled with decreasing global support for basic science, has created an environment that incentivizes researchers to posit the safest science that has moderate impact.
While the Foundation seeks fair, equitable, and unbiased peer review (within the limits of human subjectivity and altruistic capacity), the interdisciplinary nature of its proposals creates unique challenges for managing reviewer biases and limitations. Big Question research often involves collaborations across departments or schools that are atypical in academia and lack the benefit of shared language, concepts, and experimental design preferences. Such efforts take longer to develop, have lower apparent productivity, and tend to encounter unforeseen experimental or conceptual risks. Within this context, individual reviewers often struggle to evaluate or appreciate the value of a project (being limited to only those programmatic aspects for which they have expertise), and they can be overly conservative in the face of new or nontraditional ideas and approaches. Another major challenge is that the Foundation supports empirical efforts that are contrarian and have apparent or real theological and philosophical import. In this case, a reviewer’s metaphysical presuppositions can have a significant effect on their enthusiasm for a proposal, distinct from the quality of the proposed science.
The Foundation’s ad hoc approach is very effective at evaluating interdisciplinary research and manages reviewers’ tendency towards risk aversion through consensus building, but it opens the Foundation and applicants to different kinds of risk. For example, independent review lacks the benefit of panel discussion that can serve to normalize concerns, limit ignorance, and check unwarranted biases or naked ambitions. Consequently, and particularly in an innovative or contrarian space, ad hoc review can result in inordinately high variance in reviewer scores without calibration. It can also introduce a level of variability between applications, as diverse factors (e.g. the size and complexity of different requests, the quality of received reviews, etc.) will generally result in no two proposals in a given department and funding cycle receiving the same reviewers or total number of reviews. While some readers may consider this approach the opposite of “fair and equitable” (except, perhaps, those who secure funding!), it affords Templeton the ability to tailor peer review to the unique needs of each proposal. This is essential, as the Foundation also supports efforts to increase public engagement or to build new fields of enquiry, which means that a department may need to evaluate the fundability of different kinds of proposals for their portfolio (comparing an apple, tomato, and a radish).
For science funders to maximize their investment, they must be open to the risks inherent in the scientific process, and free themselves from the tyranny of high (and invariant) review scores and spurious impact metrics. Funders are the primary driver of behavioral change, and the Foundation has found that an ad hoc approach allows it to effectively manage the sociological factors that impede transformative research. This requires leadership to recognize the subjectivity behind the scientific enterprise and adopt a less risk-averse approach. In the same way that Sir John viewed financial risk as a necessary component of success (famously stating that 33% of his investments failed, 33% broke even, and the remaining 33% exceeded his investment), I have found the Foundation Board members are tolerant of uncertainty and even programmatic failure in pursuit of Sir John’s goals. This commitment empowers Foundation staff to proactively develop and endorse initiatives that could not find support through traditional funding sources using a value-based approach to discovery-based science.
A great example of the kind of work we uniquely fund is the Boundaries of Life Initiative, a $13M investment with Nathan Wolfe at Global Viral that is looking for evidence that life evolved more than once on earth. If it succeeds and shows that some forms of life evolved independently and persist to this day (perhaps with radically different biochemistries), this finding would radically alter our definition of life as well as our expectations for the fecundity of the universe. While many reviewers are skeptical, and the Foundation is absorbing tremendous risk, this effort is very much in the spirit of Sir John’s vision, who stated that it could take us hundreds of years before we see measurable gains in spiritual progress. In some sense, while we do not know how long it may take to have success (if ever!), short-term losses are expected, and the greater risk for us is that we lose the contrarian spirit. With time, such research has the potential to transform our knowledge of creation as well as our understanding of who we are and our place in the cosmos. We hope that other funders, like us, will stay curious as we advance the frontiers of a “rich future of boundless possibilities.”
Kevin Arnold, Ph.D Biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is a Program Officer at the John Templeton Foundation. He oversees funding in the Genetics portfolio, which is focused on discovering epigenetic mechanisms underlying the transgenerational inheritance of disease. Kevin also contributes to the Life Sciences portfolio, specifically Big Questions on the contingency of life and the emergence of agency across broad levels of organization.
“The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.”