The new director of the National Institutes of Health gave assurance this week that he has no religious agenda for the nation’s premiere medical research agency amid concerns over his deeply held Christian beliefs.
"The NIH director needs to focus on science," Dr. Francis Collins told The Associated Press this week in his first interview since his confirmation last week.
Though Collins has been touted as one of the nation's leading geneticists and recognized for his lead role in the breakthrough unraveling of the human genetic code and his landmark discoveries of disease genes, Obama’s July 8 announcement of Collins’ nomination drew a considerable volume of protest within scientific and nonreligious communities.
“Francis Collins is an accomplished scientist and a man who is sincere in his beliefs. And that is precisely what makes me so uncomfortable about his nomination,” expressed atheist author Sam Harris in an Op-Ed that appeared earlier this month in the New York Times.
“Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible,” he asked.
While Collins remained silent since news broke of his potential nomination, Christian conservatives were quick to rally in his defense, arguing that the belief that Collins’ faith impedes his fitness to serve as the head of the NIH operates on the “absurd premise” that only atheists and agnostics are capable of being good scientists.
“One might argue the precise opposite of this,” commented Ken Connor, chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington.
“Groundbreaking advances in astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, genetics, and other fields of knowledge were made by men dedicated to systematically investigating God's creation – men like Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Kelvin, Mendel, and Faraday,” he noted.
Even Christians who don’t see eye-to-eye with Collins, a self-professed theistic evolutionist, backed his nomination.
Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, for example, admitted having some “profound disagreements” with Collins, who believes classical religious teachings about God are compatible with the modern scientific understanding about biological evolution. Still, Colson said he holds Collins in high esteem-both as a scientist and as a brother in Christ – “living proof that one can be a great scientist and a serious Christian.”
“He is a solid follower of Christ and an articulate defender of his views-both religious and scientific,” Colson stated.
In the interview with AP, Collins acknowledged the differences between some camps within the scientific community and some within the faith-based community.
"I do think the current battle that's going on in our culture between extreme voices is not a productive one," said Collins, who helped establish the BioLogos Foundation, a Web site formed by scientists who said they want to bridge gaps between the two groups.
"The chance to play some kind of useful role in that conversation by pointing out the potential harmony was something that seemed to be making some inroads," he added.
Aside from his lead role in the breakthrough unraveling of the human genetic code and his landmark discoveries of disease genes, Collins is known for his consistent emphasis on the importance of ethical and legal issues in genetics. He has been elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor given by the President – in November 2007.
As NIH director, Collins will be facing calls to boost spending on cancer research and free science from politics as well as financial conflicts of interest.
As an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH serves as the steward of medical and behavioral research for the country, providing leadership and direction to programs designed to improve the health of the nation by conducting and supporting research.