John Templeton Foundation: Grants for Higher Education

OVERVIEW: With assets recently reported at nearly $3.5 billion, the John Templeton Foundation is a major supporter of innovative projects at renowned universities around the world. Its biggest higher ed program is called "Science and the Big Questions," but Templeton also funds programs in character development, free markets, genetics, and STEM education. The foundation does also support early-career scholars. Unsolicited inquiries are accepted on a project-by-project basis.

IP TAKE: Smaller-scale projects will face fierce competition from established heavy hitters, but if your project involves an interdisciplinary exploration into some of the "big questions" of human existence, Templeton may be the funder for you.  

PROFILE: The John Templeton Foundation describes itself as “a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the big questions of human purpose and ultimate reality.” Its motto is, “How little we know, how eager to learn." It says that this "exemplifies our support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries." Its endowment is significant, recently reported at close to $3.5 billion, and it awards about $100 million per year.

The humanities include many areas of the social sciences, art and culture. In a way, the Templeton Foundation’s grantmaking has served to bridge these varied disciplines to develop new ways of thinking. A tenet of the foundation’s grantmaking philosophy is to support projects that “cross disciplinary boundaries.” 

The most important program for higher ed researchers is called Science and the Big Questions. It’s the foundation’s largest program, and provides major support for research “about the basic forces, concepts, and realities governing the universe and humankind's place in the universe.” Grants from the program are divvied up into five areas: Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Life Sciences, Human Sciences, Philosophy and Theology, and Science in Dialogue. University researchers have historically received the majority of grants from the Big Questions program. 

Another of the foundation's signature programs is its Character Virtue Development program, which supports "programs, publications, and studies focused on the universal truths of character development, from childhood through young adulthood and beyond." Universities are among the many recipients of funding through this program, and have received support for studies of character formation and how character is studied and assessed.

The Individual Freedom & Free Markets program is the foundation's third core program, and derives directly from Templeton's success as an investor and his strong belief in the essential connection between free markets and individual liberty. To that end, the foundation supports "a range of programs intended to liberate the initiative of individuals and nations and to establish the necessary conditions for the success of profit-making enterprise." Grant recipients in this area include universities and a range of free market think tanks, most of which have received funding for studies and publications stemming from multiple facets of this topic.

While the name of the Exceptional Cognitive Talent and Genius program might not suggest it, Templeton is also a supporter of STEM education. Though a relatively small number of grants have been awarded in this area (an average of less than one per year over the past decade), about half of them support university studies and university-affiliated events related to "identifying and nurturing young people who demonstrate exceptional talent in mathematics and science," both in the U.S. and internationally.

Templeton's final core grantmaking area is focused on genetics, and concerns "how major advances in genetics might serve to empower individuals, leading to spiritually beneficial social and cultural changes." While the earliest genetics grant dates back to 2007, the foundation is still in its early stages in relation to this funding area. It does not accept unsolicited proposals for related projects and has made relatively few genetics grants. That said, several universities and research institutes have received support for genetic research on the preventative and curative sides, as well as investigations into how health is passed down from one generation to the next. Yet a significant portion of those grants have come in more recent years; the foundation has stated a desire to have "a broader grant portfolio" in the coming years, so keep an eye on this funding area as Templeton refines its funding strategy.

Spirituality plays a strong role in the foundation’s strategy, and that’s been a source of controversy for some philosophers (this Chronicle of Higher Education discussion looks at some of the opinions). But overall, there are plenty of projects that aren’t primarily focused on spirituality. 

The foundation’s grant process is fairly accessible. Each year, Templeton offers open grant inquiry periods, conducted online. Additional information is also available here regarding funding competitions, and details about the foundation’s past giving are laid out in detail in its grants database.

The foundation is open to initial inquiries in some project areas only, and states that full proposals are by invitation only after the review of an initial proposal. Competition is strong for Templeton grants, but the foundation has a stated desire “to get involved early enough in people’s careers that we can make a big difference in their work and allow them to realize their fullest potential.”

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