John Templeton Foundation: Grants for STEM Higher Education

OVERVIEW: The Templeton Foundation is a giant in the field of science philanthropy, but it employs an unorthodox approach that doesn't shy away from big philosophical questions. Its grantmaking activities focus heavily on research, but it supports science education as well and likes to support interdisciplinary work.

IP TAKE: Think of Templeton as the philanthropic equivalent of the eccentric science professor who focuses on the "big picture" questions that stand at the intersection of science and philosophy. If you have a creative approach to STEM education that strives to unlock the great mysteries of life, Templeton is your kind of funder.

PROFILE: The late Sir John Templeton was a man fascinated with life's big questions: What is the meaning of life? How did the universe begin? How did life originate? What is humankind's place in the universe? The Templeton Foundation, established in 1987 and headquartered in Pennsylvania, reflects the interests of its founder in its grantmaking activities. Its endowment is significant, recently reported at close to $3.5 billion, and the foundation has recently been distributing about $100 million in total awards per annum.

Templeton's approach to STEM in higher education differs from that of most other funders. Scientific rigor and curiosity have to be there, but this funder is looking for projects that depart from the typical STEM projects pursued by other universities and that address the kinds of big questions that fascinated the foundation's namesake. Spirituality does play a strong role in the foundation’s strategy (a source of controversy for some philosophers, discussed in detailed in this Chronicle of Higher Education discussion), but there are plenty of projects that aren’t necessarily spirituality focused. 

One important program for higher ed STEM 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. 

While the name of the Exceptional Cognitive Talent and Genius program might not suggest it, Templeton is also a supporter of STEM education through this program. A relatively small number of grants have been awarded in this area (an average of less than one per year over the past decade), but about half of them supported 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.

Another of Templeton's core grantmaking areas is focused on "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 genetics research on the preventative and curative sides, as well as investigations into how health is passed down from one generation to the next. A significant portion of those grants have come in more recent years and the foundation has stated a desire to have "a broader grant portfolio" in this area, so keep an eye on the genetics program as Templeton refines its funding strategy. 

In addition to its STEM-related programs, Templeton's other programs where higher ed institutions have received support are Individual Freedom & Free Markets, focusing on the connection between those two concerns, and Character Virtue Development, which supports an array of work "on the universal truths of character development, from childhood through young adulthood and beyond."

The foundation’s grant process is fairly accessible. Each year, Templeton offers open grant inquiry periods, which are 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.”

To sum up: this is not the funder to approach with the conventional, "same-old-thing" approach to STEM education, and Templeton's unique approach may be off-putting to some organizations. But institutions that are willing to employ a cross-disciplinary approach that integrates STEM content with such disciplines as philosophy and theology in ways that engage students and address fundamental questions of life and existence are likely to find a receptive audience at the Templeton Foundation. 

PEOPLE:

  • Nicholas J.S. Gibson, Program Officer, Human Sciences
  • Kevin Arnold, Program Officer, Life Sciences and Genetics
  • Bevin Ashley Zauderer, Ph.D., Assistant Director, Mathematical and Physical Sciences
  • Richard Bollinger, Ph.D., Program Officer, Character Virtue Development

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