hat does it take to become a world-class hub of creativity and innovation? It is a question that we constantly ask ourselves at the John Templeton Foundation. We want to be such a hub, and we are tirelessly “talent-scouting” for people and institutions with the spark of genius in our fields of interest. Readers of our last Capabilities Report, published two years ago, will find in the pages that follow a Cambrian explosion of new grants, programs, and philanthropic innovations, on a scale hardly imaginable when the Foundation first opened its doors in the late 1980s.
We know, however, that excellence is not achieved through mere expansion and the passage of time. For most companies, universities, research labs, and philanthropies, age tends to lead to bureaucratization and a gradual loss of creative edge, even as assets and reputations continue to grow. We intend to be an exception to this tendency. The late Sir John Templeton's wish for his Foundation was that it would pick up speed and become more creative, productive, and influential as it grew larger and older. Indeed, his charter for the Foundation includes more than a dash of impatience: he had every expectation that we would help to accelerate human progress. Though he was always grateful to Balliol College, Oxford, for the transformative life experience he received there as a Rhodes Scholar, Sir John was aware that it took Balliol centuries to become such a remarkably fertile intellectual powerhouse and a training ground for great thinkers and doers. He would have liked to help them get there a bit faster!
In this Capabilities Report, two interwoven themes are especially worth reflecting upon in the context of the Foundation's current expansion: (1) our continued emphasis on asking and probing the Big Questions of human nature and purpose and (2) our determination to put into practice a wide range of organizational improvements designed to help current and prospective grantees do world-class, cutting-edge research. As philanthropic investors, we seek projects likely to generate a significant return on our investment. We aim to identify researchers whose success has the chance to transform whole fields, leading to ever more discoveries and breakthroughs. We know, however, that unless we back up these bold objectives with strong, flexible organizational capabilities, we will not have this sort of far-reaching influence.
Sir John Templeton wanted his Foundation to ask the boldest questions conceivable to the human intellect and imagination. He asked us to extend the boundaries of science into neglected areas of philosophical and spiritual inquiry, where new discoveries were most likely to be made. We ask leading scientists and scholars to ponder—and to investigate, using the best research methods—the perennial imponderables: Is mathematics discovered or invented? Do human beings have free will? What is creativity? What is time? Can happiness be measured? Does the universe have a purpose? Has science made belief in God obsolete?
Like venture capital firms, foundations are designed to identify and exploit opportunities that have been overlooked by others. In the case of the Templeton Foundation's “core themes,” we believe that the extreme specialization that prevails in science today has left many of the most interesting, difficult, and profound research questions unaddressed and unfunded. In a contrarian spirit, we try to give great scientific minds the space and opportunity to address questions that cross disciplinary boundaries and seldom draw the interest of conventional funding sources. It is also worth noting that our funding portfolio now includes areas that go well beyond what many have associated with the Foundation in the past two decades. A prime example is our growing emphasis on freedom and free enterprise, especially as an engine of wealth creation and social progress in the developing world.
Given our objectives, it is imperative that we continue to build the organizational capabilities necessary to reach and encourage the world's top scientific researchers. Though we are determined to maintain a rigorous and systematic grantmaking process, we also want prospective grantees to feel that they have been treated efficiently and professionally. As responsible stewards of the Foundation's resources, we find it necessary to ask for very detailed grant proposals, and we subject them to comprehensive expert review. But even as we ask for large volumes of written material, we try to avoid a bureaucratic mindset and to keep the process as simple and transparent as possible.
In that spirit, the Foundation was pleased to launch in 2007 a new portal for online funding inquiries. This entry point for potential grantees literally opened us up for business with the entire world. It has changed dramatically the way we consider proposals, allowing a much broader universe of people and institutions to test ideas with us in a timely, efficient way. The process allows us to determine, at an early stage, whether a project seems both substantively promising and sufficiently aligned with the Foundation's core areas of interest. We expect this modest step to be the first of many such operational enhancements in how we engage prospective grantees on our way to fulfilling Sir John Templeton's noble, ambitious hopes.