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Canadian controversy over funding for research on antievolutionism


While delivering a talk to the Royal Society of Canada on "Intelligent Design, God & Evolution" on March 29, McGill University's Brian Alters dropped a bombshell. Throughout his talk he had contrasted the contentious state of evolution education in the United States with its relatively sedate counterpart in Canada. But toward the end of his talk, Alters mentioned a research project to study the effects of the popularization of "intelligent design" on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers, for which he had requested funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He revealed that his proposal was rejected, in part because (the SSHRC wrote) of inadequate "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct."

A story (subscription required) in Nature (April 4, 2006) quoted Alters as saying, "It illustrates how the misunderstanding of evolution and intelligent design can go to all levels of Canadian society," with David Green, director of McGill University's Redpath Natural History Museum, adding, "I was quite surprised that such an opinion could be tendered by a highpowered granting agency." Philip Sadler, a board member of McGill's Evolution Education Research Centre (which Alters directs) and director of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, quipped, "If he was trying to answer the question as to whether all this popularization had had an impact, he just saved the government $40,000 ... He found the evidence without doing the study."

McGill University subsequently asked the SSHRC to review its decision. A spokesperson told the CanWest News Service (April 5, 2006), "There are all kinds of reasons to deny a grant proposal ... We don't want to assume anything," but added, "The theory of evolution is well-established science, while intelligent design is a form of religious belief." Janet Halliwell, the SSHRC's executive vice-president, told CanWest that the "framing" of the committee's comments to Alters left the letter "open to misinterpretation," but suggested that Alters misunderstood the rejection letter and stated that the rejection of the proposal was not due to SSHRC's having "doubts about the theory of evolution." In a subsequent CanWest story (April 6, 2006), however, a few members of the review committee are quoted [Link broken] as expressing a degree of vague skepticism about evolution.

In addition to directing the Evolution Education Research Centre, Alters is the Tomlinson Chair in Science Education, director of the Tomlinson University Science Education Project, and Sir William Dawson Scholar at McGill University. In 2003, he won both the Principal's Prize for Excellence in Teaching and the Faculty of Education Award for Distinguished Teaching. He is the author of several books, including Defending Evolution and the textbook Biology: Understanding Life, both coauthored with Sandra M. Alters, and Teaching Biological Evolution in Higher Education. He testified as an expert witness on science education for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover. Alters was awarded NCSE's "Friend of Darwin" award in 2005, in which year he also became a member of NCSE's board of directors.