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Balance science and religion: Mendel

world Updated: Jun 29, 2008 08:49 IST

As a 19th century Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel was expected to pursue his groundbreaking genetics research with the same passion he reserved for his religious studies.

Combining those disciplines isn't popular today. Villanova University, an Augustinian Roman Catholic college, is trying to change that by highlighting the work of the Austrian scientist.

The school will declare the "Year of Mendel" starting this fall and is sponsoring an exhibit on his work at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The effort complements an award Villanova has given since 1928, the Mendel Medal, to scientists who balance religious conviction and scientific progress.

"Saint Augustine talked about the pursuit of... knowledge and truth," said the Rev Kail Ellis, dean of Villanova's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "Certainly the sciences (are) a key part of our knowledge and our ability to function in the world."

This year's medal recipient, the Rev George V Coyne, directed the Vatican Observatory for 28 years until retiring in 2006. An astronomer and astrophysicist, Coyne pointed to the very existence of the observatory as evidence that the church sees faith and science as compatible.

"The same God that created the universe that I study as a scientist is the God who spoke to the Jewish people of old," he said.

But shrill voices from both the scientific and religious communities have created a tense climate for researchers in the United States, said Francis Collins, outgoing director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and recipient of the Mendel Medal in 1998.