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Templeton Foundation Enlists Journalists into Its Science-Religion Discussion


Looking for 10 Fine Journalists
Setting Up the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science and Religion
By Julia Vitullo-Martin

“It’s a pleasure to meet a man who’s got an asteroid named after him,” said Cathy Lynn Grossman, the religion correspondent for USA Today, extending her hand to Owen Gingerich, research professor of astronomy at Harvard and a member of our advisory committee. We were interviewing semi-finalists for the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in New York. “Oh, that’s nothing,” replied Gingerich. “I have dozens of friends who have asteroids named after them. Mine is small, just about the size of Manhattan. But it has a mind of its own and follows an eccentric orbit, of which I’m very proud.” With that rather wonderful summary of one scientist’s outlook on asteroids and life, the fellowship interviews proceeded.

The discussions between prospective fellows and advisory committee members were wide-ranging: Does science allow for free will? Who has the right to say who should live and who should die? What is the nature of randomness? Is the scientific method applicable to religion? Is the food in Cambridge any good? Will I have time to run along the Cam?

The in-person interviews, held in January and February 2005 in both London and New York, were the culmination of a grueling–but very short–process that had begun the previous September, when the John Templeton Foundation informed the directors–theologian Fraser Watts, physicist Russell Stannard, and me–that they were indeed funding our two-year pilot. The fellowships will enable 10 journalists each year to take two months off to investigate and study the relationships between science and religion. They will spend three weeks at the University of Cambridge, UK, in seminars with renowned scholars and thinkers, and the balance of the time at home, in independent study.

Because time was of the essence, we immediately publicized and advertised the fellowship as widely as possible and also set up an interactive web site that became an immensely efficient tool for applicants to find us and correspond with us.

Our advisory committee members are scattered–Watts and mathematician John Barrow in Cambridge, UK; Stannard in London; Gingerich in Cambridge, US; Chicago Tribune public editor Don Wycliff in Chicago; and me in New York. Committee members were able to review applications on the web site whenever they wished–24/7–and enter their comments and evaluations, which could then be read by all of us, but no one else, as we took great care to secure the site.

Fellows are not required to have had formal academic training in the sciences, though that would prove useful, given the eminence and sophistication of the lecturers in the program. Nor is there any religious requirement–in training or belief–of any kind. The most important criteria are an applicant’s sincere analytical interest in science and religion, intellectual curiosity about difficult issues, originality of thought displayed in previous writings, and a superior record of journalistic achievement. We were looking for those journalists who show promise of making a significant contribution to the public’s understanding of the complex issues of science and religion.

Of the 157 journalists who applied, 47 were rated as highly qualified in an initial analysis carried out by the staffs of the New York and Cambridge offices. We then narrowed that list to 27 journalists–18 from the US and 9 from the UK. Advisory committee members were free to assess the 157 journalists via the web site or rely on the staff analysis for the first round.

We’re all intensely aware that we have had to turn down dozens of excellent applicants–but are also deeply pleased with those we’ve chosen. Every candidate who was offered the fellowship accepted it.

The 10 new fellows are among the leading print and broadcast journalists at the top news outlets in the US and UK, including the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Scientific American, New Scientist, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, National Public Radio, ABC, and the BBC. The fellows have covered topics ranging from science and the environment to ethics and religion, and their work has been honored with the top journalism awards in science, religion, and opinion. They were all given extraordinary references by their supervisors. One fellow is said to be the best writer on complex issues in the US, another is said to be the nation’s finest science journalist. One prominent editor was so intent on recommending a journalist that she called me from her hospital bed–having been confined with a serious bout of pneumonia. Certain descriptions came up again and again: open, generous, collegial, relentless, curious, highly intelligent, and fair.

They applied for many different reasons and are seeking different things from the experience. George Johnson, for example, who writes for the New York Times, says that he applied because the “tension between science and theology–and the point at which the two parted ways” had long fascinated him. He adds, “I’ve been reading about Newton in Cambridge and how his work on optics, universal gravitation, alchemy, and Biblical prophecy were all part of the same muddle. What a perfect place to try and sort some of these ideas out. I’ve also been intrigued by claims that the Royal Society had roots in, of all things, Rosicrucianism. How did mysticism make the segue into science?”

The fellows, who will arrive in Cambridge on June 5, will be housed at the Garden House Hotel on the Cam, directly across from Queens’ College, where many of the seminars will be held. The first speaker will be Denis Alexander, who will give an overview of the history of the relationships between science and religion, followed by Peter Lipton who will discuss methodological approaches to science and religion. Simon Conway Morris will lecture on evolution and convergence, Richard Dawkins on “the selfish gene,” Paul Davies on multiverses, Nancey Murphy on the soul, Ronald Cole-Turner on cloning, Sir John Houghton on environment and ethics, and John Barrow on the anthropic principle. After dinner speakers will include Sir John Polkinghorne reflecting on how the debates about science and religion have changed over his lifetime.

The seminars conclude during the last week in July with each of the fellows giving an oral presentation of an essay-length publishable piece, reflecting their research and study over the previous two months. Don Wycliff, John Cornwell, author of “Hitler’s Scientists,” and Charles Townes, the eminent physicist and 2005 Templeton Laureate, will participate.

We’ll be able to evaluate the effectiveness of the three weeks in Cambridge almost immediately–each fellow and speaker will be asked to fill out an evaluation form after each session. But we’ll have to wait a few months to see if we’ve successfully met the project’s goal: to enhance the public debate. Ultimately, we’ll measure the project by the quality of the pieces published by fellows–and by their effect on public discussion.

While the seminar schedule is and is meant to be arduous, the weekend and evening activities will take advantage of Cambridge’s extraordinary setting. After all, Cambridge is where the great debates on science and religion began in the 19th century–and continue unabated today.

For more information about the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion please go to: http://templeton-cambridge.org

For information about the University of Cambridge please go to: http://www.divinity.cam.ac.uk


Julia Vitullo-Martin is a co-director of the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science and Religion. She is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and writes often on public policy issues.

Milestones is a publication of the John Templeton Foundation.

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