In today’s blog, Boz Czarnecki, Proposal Development Executive at Edinburgh Research Office, talks to Dr Sarah Lane Ritchie and Professor Mark Harris about their recent project funded by the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) and their experience of applying to this funder.
Sarah Lane Ritchie and Mark Harris investigate some of the most ambitious and fascinating questions across theology and science. ‘What is Nature?’ is at the heart of their recent research project entitled ‘God and the Book of Nature’. This multidisciplinary project, involving 10 partners across UK and US, has attracted the funding of over £2m from the JTF.
Boz Czarnecki: ‘What is Nature?’ is an extremely challenging question in very many ways. How do you approach it in your project?
Sarah Lane Ritchie & Mark Harris: The question is a notoriously difficult one to answer, and many have tried, from perspectives in the environmental sciences to social sciences, and especially from philosophy and theology. Our own simplifying approach – since we are committed to understanding the dialogue between the natural sciences and religious belief – is based on the assumption that nature is whatever the natural sciences study. There are questions about whether realities like mathematics, morality and literature come under this umbrella or not – including the social sciences and all of the arts and humanities subjects! – but it serves us as a starting point for our main interest, which is to develop a science-engaged theology of nature. Given the immense remit of the question, we decided that the best way to approach it was through a large team working collaboratively from the sciences, philosophy and theology. Hence, the project revolves around 10 teams of postdocs from various areas, all placed in universities across Europe and the US.
Boz Czarnecki: Why the John Templeton Foundation grant?
Sarah Lane Ritchie & Mark Harris: The Science and Religion programme at New College had already received two JTF grants in the past, and so we have developed a good working relationship with JTF. They are particularly interested in the development of projects in the Science and Religion field, so it was natural that we should approach them first of all for funding for our new idea.
Boz Czarnecki: What was it about your project that made it so attractive to the funder?
Sarah Lane Ritchie & Mark Harris: JTF has developed a particular interest in projects that seek to develop ‘science-engaged theology’, and our own interests in the theology of nature dovetail with this thematic closely. Moreover, Edinburgh in general (and New College in particular) has a long proven track record of high-calibre research in this area, and for arranging collaborative interdisciplinary research between philosophers, theologians and natural scientists (which this particular project requires).
Boz Czarnecki: JTF is an influential private funder and its application process is different to what we see, for instance, with publically funded UKRI or EC calls. From your perspective, what are the most critical stages in the application process?
Sarah Lane Ritchie & Mark Harris: The most critical stage is developing a relationship with the JTF program officers. It is possible to apply successfully for funding from JTF out of the blue, but owing to the lengthy stage of the process it is much more straightforward to be in contact with them about ideas and feedback sooner rather than later. We have found that, as our relationship with JTF has developed over the years, the JTF program officers have been invaluable in providing advice and encouragement at every stage of the process.
Boz Czarnecki: And how often did you receive feedback from the John Templeton Foundation; how directly were you able to interact with the funder?
Sarah Lane Ritchie & Mark Harris: We have received honest feedback at every stage, since we interact directly with the JTF program officers (through face-to-face meetings, and over e-mail) regularly.
Boz Czarnecki: How valuable was your previous experience with the funder in this process?
Sarah Lane Ritchie & Mark Harris: Extremely valuable – it takes time to build up a relationship with the JTF program officers, and New College staff in the Science and Religion area have developed this over a number of years, through several grants. Of course, it helps that the JTF programme officers have been supportive and welcoming of our ideas in the first place.
Boz Czarnecki: What did you find particularly difficult or challenging when applying or at the post-award stage?
Sarah Lane Ritchie & Mark Harris: The main challenge we faced came soon after the award was made, when we had to kickstart a very complex project. The project supports a network of postdocs and mentors spread across 10 universities in Europe and the US. Organising the appointment of these postdocs, and supporting ongoing collaborative work between them involved a great deal of administrative work in the early months, considerably more than we had originally envisioned. Thankfully, University staff (e.g. Edinburgh Research Office) were enormously helpful throughout, and carried out a lot of the hard work themselves. We have now been able to appoint a project manager (using our project funds), who has helped enormously in ensuring that the project now runs more smoothly.
Boz Czarnecki: Thank you very much for sharing these insights. One last question: What is your main piece of advice for researchers who are considering applying to JTF?
Sarah Lane Ritchie & Mark Harris: Speak to the programme officers about your ideas. They are very approachable and will give a no-nonsense answer about whether they think a potential project is feasible or not. If they find the idea attractive then they will often be happy to provide advice to help you develop it into a workable proposal.
John Templeton Foundation’s mission is to ‘support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and emergence to creativity, forgiveness, and free will’ and to do so through enabling ‘dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians, as well as between such experts and the public at large.’
For further details, please visit the John Templeton Foundation website.
Contact the EU and International Team at Edinburgh Research Office to find out more about how we can support you with applying for international research funding.