n awards competition recently administered by the Cambridge Templeton Consortium offers a fascinating case study of the difficulties of funding research at the boundaries between religion and science—and how to enable such research work.

Many of the world’s religious traditions hold that there is purpose in the world and purpose to human existence. It is natural for religious persons to ask: can science detect signs of purpose in nature? This was the question that the John Templeton Foundation brought to leaders of the Cambridge Templeton Consortium (CTC). (Click here for a list of The Cambridge Templeton Consortium)

Yet for many reasons “purpose” is viewed with suspicion in the natural sciences. The Consortium nonetheless agreed that there are genuinely deep questions in science that can lead to philosophical debate, and in this spirit they were anxious to foster new work on the emergence of biological and cultural complexity. Clearly, more complex organisms and behaviors have emerged over time. If science can understand this trend toward increasing complexity, philosophers and religious scholars can then reflect on its broader significance.

Such research will be boldly cross-disciplinary. “Most of science depends very strongly on having determinate answers tested in a very particular framework,” notes Simon Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at Cambridge and author of Life’s Solution, “and that’s why science is so successful. Yet on the edges of science there are certain questions… Over a pint of beer, scientists will say in a relaxed, off-the-record way, ‘This is something which intrigues me very much, but I know perfectly well that no research council will support this sort of thing.’ We wanted to see whether these questions could be studied in a scientific way.”

“We were very concerned from the beginning to run the competition in an open and transparent way. Thus it’s been run as if these were grant applications to a research council, either in your country or in ours,” comments Professor Derek Burke, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia and Chair of the CTC. “Primarily we were looking for outstanding science, science which pursues sensible questions that can be answered and where there’s a reasonable chance of getting interpretable results.” He concludes, “We were a mini research council. The criterion was quality: Does an application represent good science? Is it a proper academic enterprise? Or is it rubbish?” Conway Morris adds, “The point about science is that it’s universal to all humans. In science the facts are checked. You can’t hide behind falsehoods.”

The most rigorous testing occurs within specific scientific disciplines. CTC thus chose three: biochemistry, evolutionary biology and archaeology. The vague concepts of complexity and emergence gradually became specific research areas: biochemistry and fine-tuning, evolutionary history and contemporary life, and “becoming fully human: social complexity and human engagement with the natural and supernatural world.”

The call for research proposals then went out to scientists around the world. Biochemists were asked: does systems biology shed new light on the range of chemistries suited for the emergence of life? Is there evidence of fine-tuning and convergence in biochemical pathways or in the properties of protein interaction networks? What is the relationship between randomness at the molecular level and emergent biochemical properties?

Evolutionary biologists were asked to look for common features in evolutionary trends. Is “convergence” detectible, and what is its significance? For example, to what extent do differently constructed nervous systems (e.g. mammalian and avian) achieve similar mental capacities? Finally, archaeologists were asked what we can know of the religious experiences of early homo sapiens. What do Neanderthal burials imply about the evolution of human religion? What do the earliest symbolic cultures—e.g., the cave paintings and small sculptures of the Upper Palaeolithic period—reveal about connections between symbolism and concepts of the transcendent? Is the spiritual sense a human universal?

Over 150 research proposals streamed in from around the world. Gradually these were whittled down to the 40 best, which then went out for peer review. With difficulty, the Consortium finally reduced the number to the top 18 programs. Click here for a list of the programs.