Collins may be NIH director

May 27, 2009 • 6:07 am

Well, we thought we’d seen the last of the theocracy of George W. Bush, but it apparently ain’t so.  The Scientist reports (and this has been the buzz for weeks), that born-again Christian and BioLogos Foundation director Francis Collins is likely to be named as head of the National Institutes of Health:

Francis Collins, the geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, is close to taking over the top spot at the National Institutes of Health, according to areport by Bloomberg News.

Collins, who was the director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute from 1993 to 2008, is in the final stages of being screened by the administration of US President Barack Obama, an unnamed source toldBloomberg.

Elias Zerhouni, Collins’ would-be predecessor, voiced his approval for the pick, telling Bloomberg that Collins has “done things many scientists wish they could do once in their lifetime, and he’s done it repeatedly.”

Collins recently unveiled a new foundation, BioLogos, that promotes “the search for truth in both the natural and spiritual realms, and seeks to harmonize these different perspectives,” according to the organization’s Web site. Collins, who is an evangelical Christian, has said that his new foundation is an attempt to resolve Christian faith with scientific evidence, especially with regard to evolution. In 2006 he published a bestselling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, that stirred some controversy in the scientific community.

I am funded by the NIH, and I’m worried.  Not about my own funding (although I’m a heathen cultural Jew), but about how this will affect things like stem-cell research and its funding.  If appointed, Collins will have wide latitude in how to disperse the  $30 billion annual budget, and can steer it towards or away from various projects.  I’d  be much more comfortable with someone whose only agenda was science, and did not feel compelled to set up a highly-publicized website demonstrating how he reconciles his science with Jesus.  (Truthdig has published Sam Harris’s evisceration of Collins’s wacko book.)

We are just recovering from the theocracy of G. W. Bush, and I was happy that federally-funded stem-cell research was allowed to go ahead.  Now what will happen?  This is NOT a presidential appointment designed to smooth the waters roiled by our previous administration.

Collins may indeed be a good administrator, but this appointment is a mistake.  At the very least, Collins must remove himself as director of the BioLogos foundation, as holding both posts would represent an unwanted incursion of religion into the public sphere.  I call for him to resign from BioLogos if he’s appointed as head of the NIH. (That, of course, has the attendant benefit of putting the ever-amusing Karl Giberson in charge of BioLogos!)

24 thoughts on “Collins may be NIH director

  1. Francis Collins is pro stem-cell research. He is also a thoroughly nice bloke.

    “A devoted Christian, Collins defends evolution and embryonic stem cell research in his new book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006). He dismisses religious extremists and scientist-atheists as equally shrill and believes that both sides push their beliefs on a public who prefers that science and religion remain separate.”

      1. I need a good rant… knowing full well this will be counter productive.

        It’s clear details don’t matter when Jerry fires in the “culture war” (nor does the truth actually, but fear mongering counts as double). He also adores the word “evisceration” (or some variant). You see, what matters more than communicating science and reason, is spread fear far and wide (trust me, a reaction to this would be to recount the horrors of people doing evil in the name of religion, or connected somehow). The adherence that stems from creating as much “in-group” intolerance of perceived “out-group” is great and vital – as history, politics and religion attest, just a group of atheist today are “fed up” after spending how many years silent for whatever reason now want to “speak out” – great you’re coming out, no longer cowards I guess. The “conversational intolerance” that Sam Harris advocates (along with his moral realism where we have his “moral truths”, outside of this is varying degress of religious apologia of course that will see the end of us all, if religion doesn’t become a neutered Buddhism, without belief that consciousness survives death – Sam, Have you figured out how to falsify that belief.)

        The new age culture war where atheist are adamant that “supernaturalism” is within the realm of science, that at any moment some atheistic scientist will find God (and quote Darwin to prove it), is intoxicated with the attention it’s getting. On Dawkins web site today, at the time of visit, I counted his portrait 9 times (not counting the duplicates and very tiny ones – this number is low to other times I’ve seen), his name is prominently displayed in 12 places – well you get the drift, its insane self-promotion with news wires coming in throughout the day (religion is somehow, someway painted negatively at least 95% of the time – well removed from skeptical analysis, part of the adherence factor – any hint of “positive” is bleakly dismissed in sorted styles of emotional upheaval, usually while at the same time throwing words around like rational (like a child having a fit who knows which words to use to piss off mommy). To add to this view that there’s a “war between naturalism and supernaturalims” (pretty much meaningless in a scientific understanding, yet said by Dawkins in the same thought as what matter is truth – wow), is the idea “we’ve got them on the run”, and how is this accounted for (?), well because of the reactions of course. This amazing twist seems to miss the fact that the success they bestow on themselves (beyond book sales) is mainly do to a reaction to religion. Somehow thinking that when you write books reacting to something, then that something reacts back, this means you have them on the run (strangely the once “silent”, we need to “speak out” crowd, often speak of once being on the run, scared, unable and unwilling to come forward – instead of finding voice through reason primarily, it is through reaction). This of course will be seen as wanting people to “shut up” or it will be said, oh that an “I’m an atheist, but…” statement, or he just us to go “back in the closet”, ah, B.S., I’ve been at this for decades, so save it.

        Oh, screw it…..

      2. Let us not forget when Dawkins said; we’ve made more progess in two years than decades of playing nice, the extent to which this shows an utter lack of understanding why and how shifts occur is, well, I think due to how he sees himself now (I think it was the same AAI ’07 I mentioned in another comments. – ah, which reminds me, to show evidence of this he showed a graft from a new humanist online pole which asked, is Dawkins and Hitchens good for humanism, overwhelming it showed postive results – of course what was not mentioned was the numbers for the pole were way out of line with other online new humanist poles, why you ask (?), because the pole was posted and linked on atheist web sites, including guess which ones… well it went up on Dawkins’).

    1. and believes that both sides push their beliefs on a public who prefers that science and religion remain separate.”

      He then proceeds to push his alleged scientific evidence for the existence of God.

  2. Maybe he’ll have a fetching three-tiered waterfall installed in the lobby of NIH headquarters.

  3. Don’t worry. He is a great communicator for science. I have seen him talking to groups of the public and to students. He is as good as we have got!

    And, far more likely to connect with the reachable Christians than the new atheists.

    If he becomes a Fed again he will keep his other pursuits in check. I am sure that he would resign as head of the foundation.

    Not sure what the three-tiered waterfall comment refers to–but it would be great to have one of those in “Building 1.”

  4. I don’t care what Collins believes but his public statements worry me. As Director of NIH it is very nice to think of him “connecting” with people, right up to the point where the basis for the “connection” is his agreement with them about things like intelligent design. Of course, people always like you more when you agree with them!

    There are lots of communities where statements from the Director of NIH supporting “intelligent design” wouidl easily tip the balance on school curricula! OK, school curriculum isn’t in the job description but the head of NIH carries considerable scientific authority. We are all entitled to our personal beliefs but Collins has taken public positions that are unscientific and that it a problem.

  5. Collins has frequently spoken out against “intelligent design”; have you seen his video piece at the traveling Darwin Exhibit? (I saw it when it was at the Chicago Field Museum).

    Yeah, his cognitive dissonance bothers me, but he is a brilliant scientist and an outspoken for assuming naturalism when doing science.

    No one is perfect.

    1. I dont think Collins is particularly brilliant. I think you could have replaced him as head of NHGRI with any competent, interested PI, and the end result would have been the same, at the very least.

      I can think of over 9,000 PIs in my field I respect more than Collins– harder workers, innovators, inspiring life-histories… I have no idea what their religious leanings are. Im sure people in other fields could say the same.

      So why Collins for this position, if not for his Evangelical status? Why cant he be judged for that? Like Gonzalez putting ‘Privileged Planet’ in his tenure packet, then bitching when his committee judge it.

  6. Come on folks, the co-chairman of the presidents’ science advisory committee is Dr. Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize winner and former director of the NIH. I would find it hard to believe that President Obama didn’t consult with Dr. Varmus on this appointment.

    1. Collins isnt worthy of sucking Varmuss left nut.

      However, if Varmus gives us the okay, I will totally shut up.

      Until Collins slips…

  7. What does it mean to “believe in” memes?

    Without the teasing comment I posted, which has disappeared, people are going to wonder why you ask.

    Anyone who believes that memes are real, and so many seem to, would have to believe in them because their existence depends entirely on an appeal to authority. And some pretty hilarious wiggling around as H. Allen Orr documented once.

    Though, with all belief, the meaning of that belief is dependent on the people holding it. Definition or solid analysis of it is impossible.

  8. Jerry, you are so funny at times. It’s pretty well known that Collins supports stem cell research and that sly fear monger quote is priceless (“although I’m a heathen cultural Jew”). The best part is this stuff over overlapping science and religion. It can’t be helped but noticed that you think that science can study the “supernatural”. You said flat out; “supernatural phenomena are not completely beyond the realm of science. All scientists can think of certain observations that would convince them of the existence of God or supernatural forces.” I think you will find agreement with Collins (though continue the debate over what someone actually believes). So, you may recognize the irreconcilably differences between science and religion, but clearly you’re not as far apart from Collins as you may think (I’ve noticed this same phenomena with Dawkins, who also claims the “supernatural” can be falsified). At least with Richard, he admits to be part of what he considereds propaganda (as was stated at the AAI ’07).

  9. Nothings quite as priceless as my spelling. NewEnglandBob, don’t forget to chime in on my post, be a good n…

  10. Jerry Coyne,

    -“although I’m a heathen cultural Jew”-

    How are you a “cultural Jew”? I’m very curious why you consider yourself as such – celebrate holidays in a secular manner (?), like to sing the songs (?). Of course, I have a feeling you use such wording because of how Dawkins put his life as a “cultural Christian”. Cultural Christian and Jew (Harris, a secular Buddhist who believes in the possibility of life [consciousness] after death – though while saying the ‘research’ is unfairly stigmatized by scientist, when pushed he will place a lame ‘I don’t know’ to life after death). Seems like you would like a sterilized religion in some ways (ala Harris’ “Killing the Buddha” essay), and in it would seem by saying such things as being a “cultural Jew”, that you do recognize something beyond the ethnoreligiousness, and are in fact saying this in the same way as Dawkins mentions he’s a “cultural Christian” (and Harris defense of Buddhism and using such words as “mysticism”, “spirituality” and “sacred” – these of course mirror Dan Dennett’s use of the word “soul” etc.).

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  12. From an Australian protestant evolutionary biologist (with no particular overall position on Republicans vs. Democrats in your country):

    Thank God Jerry’s an atheist, and that he managed to survive the Bush theocracy. Over here in Australia we were getting distressing reports from academics and our national daily newspaper that theocratic beheadings for infidels were just around the corner. Theocratic beheadings – well, that’s the sort of extremism you’d get from people who make wild alarmist claims …

    I’m really impressed, too, by the return of reason and enlightenment represented by your new administration’s science appointee Holdren – you know, the one who co-authored a book Ecoscience in the 1970s with the Ehrlichs which explored the joy of forced sterilisation and forced abortion. And who recently tried to wriggle out of this with weasel words to the effect that although he didn’t hold these views any more, they were never really a serious issue anyway.

    Satire aside: if Coyne is a complete sceptic, he must believe that our minds are nothing but deterministic mechanisms based on molecules going through motions. There is then no free will, and thus no basis for free rational choice of truth over error, or for free ethical choice of good over bad. We cannot blame a bin Laden, or even the menacing theocrats Bush and Francis Collins, for their actions; whatever they do, their molecules make then do it, and that is that. I have never seen a less rational belief system in my life. Of course this is not an argument for creationism. It is however an argument for people like Coyne or Dawkins to honestly face the full consequences of their own secular fundamentalist dogmas.

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