Professor denied federal research funds for assuming evolution to be 
scientific fact

Randy Boswell
The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A clash between McGill University and the key federal agency that 
funds social science research in the country is sparking a scholarly 
debate about the theory of evolution.

The university is urging the Ottawa-based Social Sciences and 
Humanities Research Council to reconsider its rejection of a funding 
bid from prominent McGill professor Brian Alters, who claims he was 
turned down on the basis that his proposed study assumed evolution to 
be a scientific fact.

Mr. Alters, director of McGill's Evolution Education Research Centre, 
had requested $40,000 from the research council to examine how the 
rising popularity in the U.S. of "intelligent design" -- a 
controversial creationist theory of life -- is eroding acceptance of 
evolutionary science in Canada.

The planned project, submitted last year to the research council, is 
titled: "Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution's 
intelligent design theory on Canadian students, teachers, parents, 
administrators and policymakers."

In denying his request, the research council's peer-review committee 
recently sent Mr. Alters a letter explaining he'd failed to 
"substantiate the premise" of his study.

It said he hadn't provided "adequate justification for the assumption 
in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not 
intelligent-design theory, was correct."

Mr. Alters said yesterday that he was "shocked" at the council's 
response and it offers "ironic" proof that his premise about 
intelligent design gaining a foothold in Canada is correct.

He said he read the letter at a public lecture last week in Montreal 
and there were "audible gasps" from the audience.

"Evolution is not an assumption, and intelligent design is 
pseudo-science," said Mr. Alters. "I think SSHRC should come out and 
state that evolution is a scientific fact and that intelligent design 
is not."

Jennifer Robinson, McGill's associate vice-principal of 
communications, said "intelligent design is a form of religious 
belief" and evolution is "well-established science" beyond serious 

"For the committee to say there was inadequate justification for that 
assumption -- in our view, that's an incorrect statement," said Mr. 
Robinson. "We're asking for them to review their decision."

Janet Halliwell, the research council's executive vice-president and 
a chemist by training, acknowledged yesterday that the "framing" of 
the committee's comments to Mr. Alters left the letter "open to 

Ms. Halliwell said confidentiality obligations made it difficult for 
her to discuss Mr. Alters' case in detail, but argued the professor 
had taken one line in the letter "out of context" and the rejection 
of his application shouldn't indicate they were expressing "doubts 
about the theory of evolution."

However, Ms. Halliwell added there are phenomena that "may not be 
easily explained by current theories of evolution," and the 
scientific world's understanding of life "is not static. There's an 
evolution in the theory of evolution."

Intelligent design -- the idea that life on Earth was shaped by the 
guiding actions of some intelligent force rather than through natural 
selection -- has become the latest battleground, particularly in the 
U.S., between creationists and advocates of the theory of evolution 
championed by famed 19th-century British scientist Charles Darwin.

Mr. Alters recently appeared as an expert witness in a U.S. court 
battle over a Pennsylvania school board's decision to begin teaching 
intelligent design theory to its students.

The high-profile case had ignited debate in the U.S. about the 
primacy of Darwin's theory in American society and the place of 
religion in schools. A federal judge ruled on the case in December, 
stating intelligent design advanced "a particular version of 
Christianity" and couldn't be taught in classrooms without violating 
the U.S. constitution.

'Assumption' Sinks Grant Application

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's letter to 
McGill professor Brian Alters:

"The committee found that the candidates were qualified. However, it 
judged the proposal did not adequately substantiate the premise that 
the popularizing of Intelligent Design Theory had detrimental effects 
on Canadian students, teachers, parents and policymakers. Nor did the 
committee consider that there was adequate justification for the 
assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not 
Intelligent Design theory, was correct. It was not convinced, 
therefore, that research based on these assumptions would yield 
objective results. In addition, the committee found that the research 
plans were insufficiently elaborated to allow for an informed 
evaluation of their merit. In view of its reservations the committee 
recommended that no award be made."