NIH Head Francis Collins Appointed to Vatican's Scientific Academy

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences, according to a recent announcement.

Collins, who was tapped by President Obama three months ago to lead the nation's premiere medical research agency, was one of two prominent U.S. geneticists selected last week to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences based on the high scientific value of their activities and their high moral profile.

As an independent body within the Holy See, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences exists to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of related problems with respects to the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.

Though Collins is an evangelical Christian and a supporter of embryonic stem cell research, which the Catholic Church strictly opposes, the prominent geneticist is widely recognized as one of the world's leading geneticists and touted for his lead role in the breakthrough unraveling of the human genetic code and his landmark discoveries of disease genes.

Collins is also 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 one of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences' 80 members, Collins would participate in a plenary session at the Vatican every two years, joining other Academicians, including a number of Nobel laureates.

Over the past 162 years, the academy has recruited some of the top scientists in the world, including German physicist Max Planck, founder of the quantum theory; Alexander Fleming, who discovered the antibiotic substance penicillin; and Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who made fundamental contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics.

 Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei is also said to have been a member and leader of the first academy, which was dissolved and later re-created by Pope Pius IX in 1847.

Notably, however, it was the Catholic Church that warned Galileo to abandon his public support for heliocentrism in the early 17th century and forced him to spend the last ten years of his life under house arrest after the Roman Inquisition found him "vehemently suspect of heresy."

 It was not until 1835 – 193 years later – that all traces of the Catholic Church's official opposition to heliocentrism disappeared, and not until 1992 that a declaration was issued by a pope acknowledging the errors committed by the church tribunal that judged Galileo's scientific positions.

In March 2008, the Vatican proposed to complete its rehabilitation of Galileo by erecting a statue of him inside the Vatican walls.