Professor Jerry Coyne (opens new window) is in New Zealand at the moment, ticking our country off his bucket list. I talked with him in the pub a few nights ago, and he alerted me to a developing story (opens new window) in the US where NASA has spent over $1 million on the "Center of Theological Inquiry". They have been tasked with investigating the "societal implications of the search for life in the universe", although a look at the topics they're working on makes it sound like the money is being spent on all sorts of weird and wonderful issues:
- formulating a "Christian response" to scientific studies on morality
- developing a new model of biblical interpretation
- relating themes from First Corinthians, a book in the Christian bible, to astrobiology
- reconciling a potential astrobiology discovery with Christian theology
- looking at how astrobiology would affect the Christian doctrine of redemption
- examining Christian ethics and Christian doctrines of human obligation
- looking at societal implications of astrobiology with "theological ethics"
- writing a monograph on Christian forgiveness
Some of these don't fall under the purview of astrobiology, and none of them seem like they're worth NASA spending money on them. My opinion is that if a religious institution needs to work on reconciling its beliefs with what science is discovering, they can pay for it themselves.
However, what is more worrying about this are the actions of a staff member at NASA, Mary Voytek, who has been responsible for the grant. She has apparently been treated to at least one free travel junket to a conference in the UK, and has mentioned being given gifts. This is not only an ethical no-no in the US, it's also illegal unless those gifts meet strict criteria and are declared:
Employees of the executive branch "may not . . . accept a gift from a prohibited source", i.e. one who:
- does business or seeks to business with the employee's agency
- is seeking official action by the employee's agency
- has interests that may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee's official duties
An Executive Branch employee may not accept payment "for travel, subsistence, and related expenses with respect to attendance of the employee . . . at any meeting or similar function relating to the official duties of the employee" from a non-Federal source
To me, it appears that this treatment of the NASA staff member by this religious organisation smacks of a deliberate attempt to influence decisions around funding. NASA so far has been resisting attempts by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to release any more data under the Freedom of Information Act than it absolutely has to - it would be nice to see them come clean and fix any problems they find - including asking for their money back!