SEATTLE — When President Bush plunged recently into the debate over the teaching of evolution, saying, "both sides

ought to be properly taught," he seemed to be reading from the playbook of the Discovery Institute, the conservative think tank here that is at the helm of this newly volatile frontier in the nation's culture wars.

After toiling in obscurity for nearly a decade, the institute's Center for Science and Culture has emerged in recent months as the ideological and strategic backbone behind the eruption of skirmishes over science in school districts and state capitals across the country.

Financed by some of the same Christian conservatives who helped Bush win the White House, the organization's intellectual core is a scattered group of scholars who for nearly a decade have explored the unorthodox explanation of life's origins known as intelligent design.

"We are in the very initial stages of a scientific revolution," said the center's director, Stephen C. Meyer, 47, a historian and philosopher of science recruited by Discovery after he protested a professor being punished for criticizing Darwin in class. "We want to have an effect on the dominant view of our culture."

For the institute's president, Bruce K. Chapman, intelligent design appealed to his contrarian, futuristic sensibilities — and attracted wealthy, religious philanthropists like Howard and Roberta Ahmanson at a time when his organization was surviving on a shoestring. More student of politics than science geek, Chapman embraced the evolution controversy as the institute's signature issue precisely because of its unpopularity in the establishment.

"When someone says there's one thing you can't talk about, that's what I want to talk about," said Chapman, 64.

Intelligent design challenges Darwin's theory of natural selection by arguing that some organisms are too complex to be explained by evolution alone, pointing to the possibility of supernatural influences. While mutual acceptance of evolution and the existence of God appeals instinctively to a faithful public, intelligent design is shunned as heresy in mainstream universities and science societies as untestable in laboratories.

From its nondescript office suites here, the institute has provided a home for the dissident thinkers, pumping $3.6 million in fellowships of $5,000 to $60,000 per year to 50 researchers since the science center's founding in 1996. Among the fruits are 50 books on intelligent design, many published by religious presses like InterVarsity or Crossway, and two documentaries that were broadcast briefly on public television. But even as the institute spearheads the intellectual development of intelligent design, it has staked out safer turf in the public policy sphere, urging states and school boards to simply include criticism in evolution lessons rather than actually teach intelligent design.

Since the presidential election last fall, the movement has made inroads, and evolution has emerged as one of the country's fiercest cultural battlefronts. Discovery leaders have been at the heart of the highest-profile developments: helping a Roman Catholic cardinal place an opinion article in The New York Times in which he sought to distance the church from evolution; showing its film promoting design and purpose in the universe at the Smithsonian; and lobbying the Kansas Board of Education in May to require criticism of evolution.

These successes follow a path laid in a 1999 Discovery manifesto known as the Wedge Document, which sought "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies" in favor of a "broadly theistic understanding of nature."

Detractors dismiss Discovery as a fundamentalist front and intelligent design as a clever rhetorical detour around the 1987 Supreme Court ruling banning creationism from curricula. But the institute's approach is more nuanced, scholarly and politically adept than its Bible-based predecessors in the centurylong battle over biology.

A closer look shows a multidimensional organization, financed by missionary and mainstream groups — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides $1 million a year, including $50,000 of Chapman's $141,000 annual salary — and asserting itself on questions on issues as varied as local transportation and foreign affairs.

But even as intelligent design has helped raise Discovery's profile, the institute is starting to suffer from its success. Lately, it has tried to distance itself from lawsuits and legislation that seek to force schools to add intelligent design to curricula, placing it in the awkward spot of trying to promote intelligent design as a robust frontier for scientists but not yet ripe for students.

The group is also fending off attacks from the left. Concerned about the criticism, Discovery's Cascadia project, which focuses on regional transportation, created its own Web site to ensure an individual identity.

Founded in 1990 as a branch of the Hudson Institute, based in Indianapolis, the institute was named for the H.M.S. Discovery, which explored Puget Sound in 1792. Chapman had been a liberal Republican on the Seattle City Council and candidate for governor but moved to the right in the Reagan administration, where he served as director of the Census Bureau and worked for Edwin Meese III.

In late 1993, Chapman clipped an essay in The Wall Street Journal by Meyer, who was teaching at a Christian college in Spokane, Wash., concerning a biologist yanked from a lecture hall for discussing intelligent design.

Then in the summer of 1995, Chapman and Meyer had dinner with a representative of the Ahmansons, the banking billionaires from Orange County, Calif., who had previously given a small grant to the institute and underwritten an early conclave of intelligent design scholars. Meyer, who had grown friendly enough with the Ahmansons to tutor their young son in science, recalled being asked, "What could you do if you had some financial backing?"

So in 1996, with the promise of $750,000 over three years from the Ahmansons and a smaller grant from the Maclellan Foundation, which supports organizations "committed to furthering the Kingdom of Christ," according to its Web site, the institute's Center for Science and Culture was born.

"Bruce is a contrarian, and this was a contrarian idea," said the historian Edward J. Larson, who was an early fellow at the institute, but left in part because of its drift to the right. "The institute was living hand-to-mouth. Here was an academic, credible activity that involved funders. It interested conservatives. It brought in money."

The institute would not provide details about its backers "because they get harassed," Chapman said. But a review of tax documents on www.guidestar.org, a Web site that collects data on foundations, showed its grants and gifts jumped to $4.1 million in 2003 from $1.4 million in 1997, the most recent and oldest years available. The records show financial support from 22 foundations, at least two-thirds of them with explicitly religious missions.

There is the Henry P. and Susan C. Crowell Trust of Colorado Springs, Colo., whose Web site describes its mission as "the teaching and active extension of the doctrines of evangelical Christianity." There is also the AMDG Foundation in Virginia: the initials stand for Ad Majorem Dei Glorium, Latin for "To the greater glory of God."

By far the biggest backers of the intelligent design efforts are the Ahmansons, who have provided 35 percent of the science center's $9.3 million since its inception and now underwrite a quarter of its $1.3 million annual operations. Ahmanson also sits on Discovery's board.

The Ahmansons' founding gift was joined by $450,000 from the Maclellan Foundation, based in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"We give for religious purposes," said Thomas H. McCallie III, its executive director. "This is not about science, and Darwin wasn't about science. Darwin was about a metaphysical view of the world."

The institute also has support from secular groups like the Verizon Foundation and the Gates Foundation, which gave $1 million in 2000 and pledged $9.35 million over 10 years in 2003. Greg Shaw, a grant maker at the Gates Foundation, said the money was "exclusive to the Cascadia project" on regional transportation.

But the evolution controversy has cost it the support of Bullitt Foundation, based here, which gave $10,000 in 2001 for transportation, as well as the John Templeton Foundation in Pennsylvania, whose Web site defines it as devoted to pursuing "new insights between theology and science."

Charles L. Harper Jr., the senior vice president of the Templeton Foundation, said he had rejected the institute's entreaties since providing $75,000 in 1999 for a conference in which intelligent design proponents confronted critics. "They're political — that for us is problematic," Harper said.

Since its founding in 1996, the science center has spent 39 percent of its $9.3 million on research, Meyer said, underwriting books or papers, or often just paying universities to release professors from some teaching responsibilities so that they can ponder intelligent design.

The 40 fellows affiliated with the science center are an eclectic group. Their credentials — advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas — are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

"They're interested in the same things I'm interested in — no one else is," Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. "What I'm doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It's not something a 'scientist' is supposed to do." Most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

"I believe that God created the universe," said Gonzalez. "What I don't know is whether that evidence can be tested objectively. I ask myself the tough questions."

One sign of any political movement's advancement is when adherents begin to act on their own, often without the awareness of the leadership. That, according to institute officials, is what happened in 1999, when a new conservative majority on the Kansas Board of Education shocked the nation by dropping all references to evolution from the state's science standards.

"When there are all these legitimate scientific controversies, this was silly, outlandish, counterproductive," said John G. West, associate director of the science center, who said he and his colleagues learned of that 1999 move in Kansas from newspaper accounts. "We began to think, 'Look, we're going to be stigmatized with what everyone does if we don't make our position clear."'

Out of this developed Discovery's "teach the controversy" approach, which endorses evolution as a staple of any biology curriculum — so long as criticism of Darwin is also in the lesson plan. This satisfied Christian conservatives but also appealed to Republican moderates and, under the First Amendment banner, much of the public.

"They have packaged their message much more cleverly than the creation-science people have," said Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, the leading defender of evolution. "They present themselves as being more mainstream. I prefer to think of that as creationism light."