In the Bush years, the NIH budget flatlined; in real dollars, it dropped. NIH research became a political football with the religious right in congress, who tried to block funding of grants with unpopular titles, and block scientific results they don't like. For example, there is no scientific link between abortion and breast cancer. Nope, none. But the right wing wants to ignore facts and tried to force NIH to say there was. Fortunately, the facts won.
With the drop in funding and the overt politicization of the process, the scientific community, especially young investigators, became demoralized. Many of them left research. The Obama administration, with a new focus on science, is trying to reverse that.
President Obama recently nominated Francis Collins as the new head of the NIH, and he was approved. This is another stellar scientist added to the administration. Collins was the director of the Human Genome Project until he retired in 2008. He is widely respected as a scientist and an administrator. As an NIH-funded geneticist, I think he's a good choice. I'm happy.
Collins is also a devout Christian and seeks to resolve a Christian view of the world with a scientific one. He wrote a book called "The Language of God" justifying his belief. When he left the Genome program in 2008, he set up a foundation called Biologos to bridge apparent conflicts between religion and science. A big one of course is evolution. Collins agrees with the scientific description of evolution; he simply believes that God made it happen that way, which is called "theistic evolution". (An expansion of this view is described in the recent USAToday piece ; H/T Susan Russell).
Militant atheist Sam Harris took after the Collins nomination in the NY Times, bascially demanding that a believer could not, should not be head of the NIH because of his "fuzzy thinking" and belief in a "soul". And, some scientists to their shame, joined in this. Fortunately they were largely ignored. There's a nice take down of Harris in the HuffPo, by Rabbi David Wolpe:
Do we really wish to blacklist Dr. Collins because he attends church? Should he be shunted aside because he sees in the world not the random collocation of ancient accidents, but the majesty of intended beauty? It is not reason, but the rankest prejudice, to assume a world- renowned scientist finds a scientific understanding "impossible" while Harris holds aloft the banner of human inquiry. It is just not so. Investigating and understanding God's world is a sacred task; Dr. Collins has shown himself extraordinarily gifted in executing that task. We should be glad and grateful to have the president appoint him as Director of the National institute of Health. I intend to say a prayer for his success. I invite Mr. Harris to join me.I find no danger in Francis Collins' beliefs. He's proven an able scientist and administrator. I DO find danger in the militant anti-theism that paints any believer as dangerous. As a scientist and an atheist myself, I refuse to endorse a fundamentalist litmus test, whether it comes with a cross or a labcoat.