Francis Collins Nominated to Head NIH

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Last week, President Barack Obama nominated physician and geneticist Francis Collins as the next Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) [1]. From 1993 — 2008, Dr. Collins was the first Director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). He led the U.S. government’s Human Genome Project, which decoded the DNA sequence of 20,000 — 25,000 genes.


In the past, Collins’ research laboratory at the University of Michigan has identified a number of important genes, including those responsible for neurofibromatosis, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease and genes for adult onset (type 2) diabetes. More recently, Collins has been a proponent of personalized medicine or genomic medicine, which leverages specific genetic knowledge for the delivery of effective healthcare. Medscape interviewed him about genomic research and personalized medicine two years ago, where he said that incorporating individualized medicine into the mainstream will necessitate a change in healthcare economics. As NIH Director he will undoubtedly have a voice in the ongoing healthcare reform debate in Washington.

In his announcement on Wednesday, President Obama said [1]:

The National Institutes of Health stands as a model when it comes to science and research. My administration is committed to promoting scientific integrity and pioneering scientific research and I am confident that Dr. Francis Collins will lead the NIH to achieve these goals. Dr. Collins is one of the top scientists in the world, and his groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease. I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.

An evangelical Christian, in 2006 Collins wrote about the interface between science and faith in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In it, he argues that belief in a personal God can and should coexist in harmony with a scientific picture of the world. Indeed, near the end of his book, Collins writes [2]:

Science is not the only way of knowing. The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth. Scientists who deny this would be well advised to consider the limits of their own tools.

Collins established the The BioLogos Foundation to address the central themes of science and religion and emphasize the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life. Promoting “theistic evolution” — the idea that God chose to create life by way of evolution — the foundation aims to help home-schoolers and Christian educators confront their scientific doubts.

Some have taken issue with Collins’ potential appointment, saying that he is too public about his world view. Several researchers have expressed concern about Collins’ faith-based advocacy statements and believe his religious values undermine his scientific views [3].

However, others have expressed optimism about the nomination. John Porter, chair of the science advocacy group Research!America said that Collins “understands all of science and has a broad vision for advancing human health through research” [4]. Jonathan Moreno, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, said that Collins has a “remarkable combination of qualities” as well as a “deep understanding that American science needs to be informed by our values” [5].

A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 83% of Americans profess a belief in God; 61% see no conflict between science and their own religious beliefs [6]. In contrast, just a third (33%) of scientists interviewed say they believe in God. Thus, although it may be that scientists are more at odds with Collins’ views, his nomination shows that the Obama administration hopes to move beyond the science-religion dichotomy that has existed in the U.S. for the last 150 years.

Collins must now gain the approval of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. If confirmed, Collins will undoubtedly support progressive policies and approaches that bridge science and ethics.

What do you think of Collins’ nomination? What do you think of scientists that hold religious beliefs?

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  1. President Obama Announces Intent to Nominate Francis Collins as NIH Director. White House press release. 2009 Jul 8.
  2. Collins, Francis. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Free Press, 2007 Jul 17.
  3. Does NIH pick signal detente in science-religion war? New Scientist. 2009 Jul 14.
  4. Research!America Praises Nomination of Francis Collins as NIH Director. Research!America press release. 2009 Jul 8.
  5. Collins for Health. Center for American Progress. 2009 Jul 10.
  6. Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. 2009 Jul 9.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.