Friday, August 14, 2009

Francis Collins, Faith, and the NIH

Many of you may not realize that the National Institutes of Health, the federally-funded biomedical research powerhouse, spends $30 billion a year. This supports 50,000 competitive grants to more than 325,000 researchers at over 3,000 institutions across the country (including yours truly). In addition to the intellectual and medical benefits of the research (including improved treatments, screening, and the basic knowledge that is the foundation for the future), there is a substantial economic benefit: $50.537 billion in increased output of goods and services to the country, 350,894 new jobs nationwide and $18.286 billion in taxable wages. (Sources here and here).

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.


Ann said...

Great post IT. thanks for the thinking.

David |Dah • veed| said...

I would hazard a guess that most of us who are progressive and Christian are theistic evolutionists in some respect.

My particular version has been formed by the late Thomas Berry, who wrote two of my most cherished books in English, The Dream of the Earth and The Great Work.

IT said...

Dahveed, I see nothing wrong with it. Science is concerned with the "how", and as long as people get that part, it's no issue to me how they deal with "why"!

All, I fixed the broken links.

Erp said...

Francis Collins is a good scientist (and more importantly for the position, reportedly a good administrator); however, I've read one of his books and he leans to the God of Gaps idea. In particular as the Harris column pointed out he believes "After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced 'house' (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul." In other words 'morality' is a gap which requires God to explain and science will never be able to explain it. So what happens if some research looks like it explains or will try to explain human morality (or a part of it) without invoking God? Personally I think Collins is a good enough scientist to accept it and modify his theology if necessary. Harris isn't willing to take that chance. BTW can dogs exhibit moral behavior (should I ask this question of MadPriest)? Personally I'll take Francisco Ayala's theology over Collins (not that I agree with it either but it is less fragile).

IT said...

To me the issue is whether or not Collins has proven qualifications for the role of NIH director. I don't care about his theology as long as his science is sound. It is.

Studies do suggest that dogs have a sense of fairness (e.g., here). And I think there are lots of examples of intelligent animals acting altruistically. I don't have a problem with that, not being stuck on a concept of human exceptionalism.

Rather than worry over what Collins would do with results that do not yet exist (a useless speculation) I think the question is what he can do now. In a polarized country where religion plays an outsized role in the political discourse, I would instead argue that he is EXACTLY the man for the job.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

A very interesting thread!

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I agree with IT---I think Collins will be great. He provides the ultimate counterpoint to those evangelicals who say you cannot be a Christian and accept the theory of evolution.

You would think that after all his work on the Human Genome Project, Collins would have proven his chops---but, as we all have reason to know, a fundie of ANY sort is not amenable to evidence.


Paul Martin said...

Another critic of Collins is Bob Parks, who writes a weekly public policy column for the American Physical Society.

Personally, I side with IT. I suspect that the endorsement of Sam Harris would be the kiss of death for this or any nomination. A qualified candidate who can pay attention to the data is fine by me. He should be an enormous improvement on the Bush appointees.

Erp said...

I do think Francis Collins is a reasonable choice for the position despite holding to the God of Gaps.

Sam Harris is working on a PhD in neuroscience at UCLA and Francis Collins' particular gap is close to the one Harris is trying to fill with his research (belief). So Harris may be particularly sensitive.

BTW IT and others may find the visit of 300 secular students to Ken Ham's Creation Museum (young earth) last week interesting. It went smoothly Blag Hag has a series of posts on it. In addition a couple of Christians went with the students and posted their reactions (Scarlet ‘A’ for a Day and Quick Random Thoughts on the Creation Museum).

Phil said...

Very nice post, IT. I agree, and thank you for saying this.