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$2 million for research

By Farrah Madanay     3/7/12 6:00pm

Director of Rice University's Religion and Public Life Program Elaine Ecklund will direct an international study of science and religion thanks to a $2 million grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

Ecklund plans to survey 10,000 scientists from six nations with co-principal investigators Senior Baker Institute fellow Kirstin Matthews and Associate Director of the Chao Center for Asian Studies Steven Lewis. According to Ecklund, the research alone is projected to be completed in three to four years.

Ecklund considers the study the first of its kind not only because of the sheer scale of subjects who will be surveyed and interviewed, but also because of the variety of countries included in the research design.

"I have noticed specifically that issues related to science and religion are now global issues," Ecklund said. "Turkish scientists are concerned about the impact that Islam has on a developing scientific infrastructure. United Kingdom scientists worry about how to get more religiously conservative schoolchildren interested in scientific careers, and the list of issues goes on."

The study, currently titled "Religion Among Scientists in International Contexts," is a step beyond Ecklund's previous study, "Religion Among Academic Scientists," which drew from a data set of 1,646 scientists at elite universities in the United States. Ecklund's study of the narratives which both natural and social scientists in the United States have ascribed to religion has since been published in the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.

The RASIC study begins with a 50-question survey of 10,000 biologists and physicists from research institutes and universities in China, France, Italy, Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom. Ecklund said her decision to narrow her research to younger scientists in the fields of biology and physics was two-fold: Biology and physics have very different gender proportions, and each field's theories contain a dialectic relation to religion.

"Some physicists think the most basic forms of physics have spiritual dimensions, and evolution, a lynch pin of modern biology, has faced challenges from religious constituencies," Ecklund said.

After receiving the initial survey responses, Ecklund's team of researchers will travel to each of the countries to conduct interviews with 600 of the surveyed scientists.

"There are about 20 working hypotheses regarding how the relationship between the church and state in each nation shapes the discourse about religion in the scientific community," Ecklund said.

Ecklund, accompanied by post-baccalaureate research fellow Samuel Kye, is currently abroad travelling to the United Kingdom and France to conduct pilot interviews for the RASIC study.

"We are already finding there are enormous cultural challenges and science infrastructure differences," Ecklund said.

Eckland said she plans to direct the RPLP student fellows in doing background research on the religious cultures of the countries, creating a comprehensive list of the scientists from the collaborating institutions, translating interviews, analyzing study data and developing reports. Lovett College junior Virginia White is among the handful of Rice undergraduate fellows collaborating with Ecklund's research team on the study.

"My role in the RASIC study currently is working with the team of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral fellows to create the sampling frame that will be used to select respondents. Additionally, I assist with collecting and analyzing background literature on religion and science in the countries of interest," White said.

Ecklund said she foresees challenges in attaining sufficient manpower to analyze the large data set, in particular in finding undergraduates who are fluent in French, Turkish and Italian to help with the study who are willing to commit to the extensive amount of travel time. However, Ecklund said she hopes this international study will break new ground in improving the productive dialogue between scientists and religious constituents.

"I think having a deep understanding of how science and religion connect – or do not – on a global scale has the potential to affect international policy, broaden social science knowledge and potentially decrease conflict in ways that make all the work well worth it," Ecklund said.

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