Francis Collins: fit to head the NIH?

Today’s topic: Some have made the argument that President Obama’s nomination of Francis Collins, a born-again Christian geneticist, to head the National Institutes of Health is a disservice to the science community because it promotes someone who is known as an apologist for religion. Are they correct? Does the fact that Collins is considered so unique because of his open embrace of religion demonstrate that most scientists believe there is a conflict between science and religion?

So what if Collins is a born-again Christian?
Point: Francisco J. Ayala

Francis S. Collins is one of the world’s greatest human geneticists. He discovered in 1989, in collaboration with other geneticists, the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis. He has also discovered the genes for other severe diseases: Huntington’s chorea, neurofibromatosis, multiple endocrine neoplasia, adult acute leukemia and others. Collins is a leader and a talented administrator. In 1993, he became director of the National Center for Human Genome Research (later the Human Genome Research Institute), which completed and made public in 2000 and 2001 a draft of the human genome project, and finished it in 2003 ahead of schedule and below budget. In 2007, Collins received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest award for civilians, for his distinguished genetics research. Collins possesses all the attributes one would want in the head of the National Institutes of Health: scientific excellence, intellectual leadership and effective management skills.

So what if Collins is a born-again Christian? What if he were a Catholic, a Jewish or a Muslim geneticist? I don’t think it should matter, as long as religious faith does not determine scientific or managerial decisions.

Do I expect Collins to use his office as NIH director to promote religion? No. His past career -- both scientific and administrative -- justifies this expectation. Would I be concerned that a lapsed Catholic or a fully convinced atheist, if one were appointed NIH director, would use the office to promote atheism or attack religion? I wouldn’t, as long as their resumes would not show such transgressions in the past or give reason to anticipate them in the future.

In his 2006 book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” Collins proclaims his Christian faith and how it inspires and fulfills his life. This is his privilege as long as he does not use his office to advance religious goals or misuse science for religious purposes. Some Christian believers have advanced the unscientific (and anti-scientific) notion of “intelligent design,” that the existence of God can be scientifically demonstrated by the fact that living creatures appear to be “designed” by a supernatural agent. Collins has denied and denounced this and other such movements.

There is no reason that faith or lack of faith should itself disqualify Collins or anybody else from such a leadership position. Collins is a great scientist and a superb leader. I expect that science in America will benefit greatly from his tenure as NIH director. Collins may not be the only health scientist in the United States qualified for this position, but I don’t know of anyone better qualified than he is.

Francisco J. Ayala, a biology professor at UC Irvine, is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science in 2001.

What it means to be an evangelical Christian
Counterpoint: Michael Shermer

There is no question that Collins is qualified scientifically to direct the National Institutes of Health, but I have two reasons for believing that there is a non-trivial chance that his religious convictions will influence his decisions as a policymaker for science.

One, the very nature of being an evangelical Christian -- which Collins self-identifies as -- means that you should evangelize for the Lord. Serious evangelicals evangelize not just on Sundays but every day, in every way, never hiding their lantern under a bushel, as proclaimed in Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

The whole point of being an evangelical Christian is to love the Lord openly and try to bring to Christ as many people as possible; otherwise you wouldn’t be an evangelical. I know because I was once an evangelical Christian, having been born again in 1971 and for many years devoting my life to evangelizing for Christ, first to my fellow high school students, then as an undergraduate at Pepperdine University (a Church of Christ institution), and later going door-to-door. I was doing God’s work, and what could be more important than that?

In the evangelical worldview, there really is no separation of church and state. Yes, Jesus told us, in Matthew 22:21, to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” but that applies to specific things such as taxes and tithings, not the general goal of bringing all Americans to the Lord. So I worry that Collins’ evangelical enthusiasm may blur the lines separating the profane and the sacred, church and state, Caesar and God.

Two, to paraphrase Gen. George S. Patton’s mistaken proclamation to Erwin Rommel on what he thought was their confrontation in North Africa, “Collins, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” Francisco, you mention Collins’ book, “The Language of God,” which is a well-written, honest and genuinely conciliatory effort at bridging the divide between science and religion. I quote it often in my debates with creationists because someone with considerable scientific status in their religious camp nevertheless explains so clearly why intelligent design is bunk.

However, Collins pulls back from the unknown at the very place where it gets interesting -- the starry heavens above and the moral law within (to quote philosopher Immanuel Kant). Here -- in the realm of the cosmic origin of the laws of nature and the evolutionary origins of morality -- Collins becomes a creationist, abandoning science altogether and glossing over (or completely ignoring) 20 years of research indicating that universes with our configuration of laws are probably inevitable as a result of quantum mechanics, and that as a social primate species we have to have a sense of right and wrong just to get along. Whether this retreat is a product of Collins’ religious convictions or scientific ignorance I cannot say, but either way I am concerned that someone holding such an important public policy position in science allowed this to happen once, which means it could happen again.

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and the author of, most recently, “The Mind of the Market.”