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This conversation is the third in a series of conversations about the Strategic Priorities that the John Templeton Foundation will be funding over the next five years. This interview with Sarah Clement, Director, Character Virtue Development, was conducted and edited by Benjamin Carlson, Director, Strategic Communication.

To get started, why don’t you share a little about your story – what brought you to the Foundation? What made you interested and excited about this place?

I pursued a PhD in psychology because I was curious about human behavior and wanted to be able to have the skills to answer questions about human behavior. While I was in graduate school, I became very interested in understanding how one can translate research findings into real-world change. As a result of that interest, I pursued both academic and non-academic positions when I entered the job market.

When I joined the Foundation in 2012, I was excited to be part of an organization that valued science and sought to use the lessons from science to inform practice. That meant grappling with questions like, how can we take research findings on forgiveness and use them to help students repair important relationships?

Our department tackles questions at the intersection of research and practice. How can we measure concepts that we cannot see? How can we change people’s attitudes and behaviors? How can we use science to improve the well-being of individuals and communities? All of these questions are very intriguing to me and motivate my work here at the Foundation.

How do you define this work? What are the goals of this priority?

The overarching goal of the Science of Character Virtue priority is to stimulate new research on several character virtues to advance our understanding of them.

More specifically, we are pursuing two strategies: the first is to double down on an area of research that we have funded in past that has gained traction in literature, and now requires more funding for rigorous research. In this strategy we will focus on gratitude. The second strategy is to break new ground on areas that have been relatively neglected by funders and the research community. This includes love, curiosity, and the intersection of virtues and religion.

To be clear, philosophers and scientists have been interested in these topics for thousands of years, but there’s a lot more to understand in these areas. Each of these research topics are at an important inflection point such that additional support would leverage greater returns.

What is most exciting to you about this priority? 

One of the greatest aspects of Sir John Templeton’s vision is his willingness to tackle important but challenging topics. Character virtue, including the four virtues in this priority, are important for maintaining healthy and lasting relationships, creating thriving communities, and advancing scientific understanding of these topics. We’re not asking easy questions, but they are some of the most important questions to ask.

In our initial background research, we found a critical mass of scholars interested in advancing understanding of these virtues. We would like to provide these scholars with the resources necessary to move the research forward in meaningful ways.

What is the state of this work now? What are the most interesting or surprising developments?

For gratitude, the Foundation has already made substantial investments in basic and applied research. There has been significant progress in this area, but mostly focused on a single point in time or focused on narrow range of populations. So over the next five years we seek to develop more cross-cultural work as a means to advance the field further. Here there are a number of scholars excited to examine this cross culturally; we just need to find the right project.

The other topics have received relatively less attention in the research community. We’re excited in identifying scholars in a variety of disciplines interested in pursuing early theoretical and empirical work on each of these topics. Our goal is to help establish thriving research communities, advance our conceptual understanding, and support early-stage empirical work.

Why do you think this topic is important now?

Character virtues are essential to Sir John Templeton’s vision. We focused in on these four because they represent unique opportunities. They have been relatively neglected by the research and funder communities, and Templeton charged us with exploring those opportunities. Second, each of these is at an important inflection point that would benefit from substantial philanthropic investment.

It’s not that we’re unique, but there aren’t that many funders in this space who fund heavily in research.

What big questions do you see in this area?

There are many great questions that remain unanswered across these topic areas.

  • How is love most readily observed and measured?
  • What is the human experience and expression of divine love?
  • How does curiosity develop over time?
  • Why and how do people experience gratitude to God?
  • How do the mental and physical health consequences of gratitude differ across cultures?

Where would you like to see the state of this work in five years? What questions do you hope we’ll be asking then?

Our goal is to provide the spark that lights the fire. Scientific and spiritual progress operates on a much larger timescale than strategic plans. We won’t expect to see fire at the end of five years, but we would like to see glowing embers. Success for us would be identifying top-tier scholars, helping to establish new communities of scholars who can connect to discuss work in such areas, and a series of grants that advance our understanding of what these virtues are, how to measure them, how they vary over time, and how they vary among individuals and across cultures.

Any other thoughts?

Please don’t hesitate to submit an application. We are interested in identifying talented and motivated individuals, including those who are early-career and or have never received funding from the Foundation. We are also excited to entertain projects from previous grantees. We seek projects that incorporate the latest scholarship on these virtues from a variety of disciplines. That’s important.

And while the focus of this priority is research projects, if you have an organization that is interested in cultivating good character, please consider submitting an application to our Character Virtue Development funding area by August 16.