Francis Collins is stunned

August 25, 2010 • 3:20 pm

Francis Collins is appalled by the new decision of a federal judge to enforce a moratorium on federally-funded research using stem cells derived from human embryos. In the interim, the NIH has to stop considering and supporting such research.  The Scientist reports:

“Frankly, I was stunned, as was virtually everyone here at NIH, by the judicial decision yesterday,” he said. “This decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research, and just at the time when we were really gaining momentum. . . “If this decision stands,” Collins said, “very promising research on human diseases on which we need new insights and new options will not get done. Screening for new drugs using hESCs, a very promising way to discover new compounds, will stop. Researchers, who have been so energized by the opportunities made available over the last year, will likely grow discouraged, maybe move on to other countries or other fields of research. We will lose the momentum.”

He continued: “This is one of the most exciting areas of the broad array of engines of discovery that NIH supports. This decision has just poured sand into that engine of discovery.”

Well, it’s good of Collins to defend a line of research that, by using excess frozen embryos that would be discarded anyway, has enormous potential to alleviate the suffering of live, unfrozen people.  I applaud him for standing up for research versus superstition.  But he surely must realize that the strongest opposition to that research comes from his own confrères: conservative Christians wielding the very same “moral law” that they all see as given by God.  I’d like to hear why Collins considers his understanding of The Divine Moral Law better than that other people.

h/t: Hempenstein

63 thoughts on “Francis Collins is stunned

  1. Just wait till a few aging boomers realise that all the research on their degenerative disease cures has come to a halt…

  2. I found the ruling astoundingly stupid. The excuse was that embryos will be destroyed – so what – it is only a number of religious cults which believe that Every Sperm is Sacred or that every embryo is a fully developed infant complete with soul. For the billions of embryos which never make it to full term, who do we sue? Can we get the catholic church to pay people for their god being an asshole and destroying their embryos? That’s one ruling that’s way out in la-la land.

    1. “The excuse was that embryos will be destroyed – so what ”

      well, that’s certainly in agreement with my opinion as well, but the judge’s decision was based on an ammendment to a bill passed in 1996 that forbids federal funding for any research that occurs from or results in the “death” of a human embryo.

      That it was passed under Clinton’s watch is remarkable enough, but there should have been more of a stink raised THEN.

      now, they congress has to go back and do surgery on that mess, and I seriously doubt THAT will happen until after the elections.

      so, effectively, this kills an entire year of NIH grants.

      that said, in this judge’s defense, he did actually try to toss the case without ruling on it, but another appeals court overrode that decision and forced him to rule on it.

      If there was another way he could actually rule on it, legally, that would be worth arguing.

      I couldn’t see it myself. By law, he is correct in his assessment, and it does require Congress to fix the original amendment.

      I also blame the current administration. While their “head” is in the right place in dissmissing Shrub’s attempts at curtailing funding for stem cell research, they really dropped the ball on not pushing through a change to that amendment.

      last thing…

      It really seems, looking at the plaintiffs in this case, to be more a case of them trying to reduce funding for embryonic stem cell work in order for there to be more funding available for ADULT stem cell work… which just happens to be THEIR company’s primary research focus.

      oh, I’m sure that’s all a coincidence though.


      1. There actually was a quite a bit of outcry at the time, but the Republicans had a majority in Congress at the time.

        1. If I’m not mistaken, the “law” in question is actually a rider that has been attached to every appropriations bill since 1996. So it’s not that a Republican Congress passed it and the Dems haven’t managed to repeal it; it’s that every year Congress (regardless of who was in the majority) has included it in the budget.

            1. Russell Korobkin over at the Volokh Conspiracy has a good overview of the legal interpretations at play. He explains why the ruling is surprising, noting that the conventional wisdom (including the Bush administration) was that the rider only banned research that resulted in the death of embryos, not research based on stem cell lines derived from human embryos by private industry. He also thinks this judge’s statutory interpretation is incorrect. I hope he is right.


              ‘The key language here is not the word “research,” but rather the phrase “in which.” That is, Dickey-Wicker does not prohibit federal funding of research that is “related to,” “associated with” or “has a connection to,” or “builds upon the fruits of” embryo destruction. It only prohibits funding of research “in which” embryos are destroyed. It is important to remember that Dickey-Wicker is an appropriations rule, so the reasonable interpretation of the scope of the “research” in question is to follow the money in the grant request. If the grant application seeks money for an acitivity that directly results in embryo destruction, this proposal constitutes research “in which” the embryo is destroyed. If an applicant seeks money to study an existing hESC line, the research in question is not research “in which” the embryo is destroyed.’

      2. the judge’s decision was based on an ammendment to a bill passed in 1996 that forbids federal funding for any research that occurs from or results in the “death” of a human embryo

        Does that bill also rule out any IVF research?

        1. Tulse asked:
          “Does that bill also rule out any IVF research?”
          It mentions research on fetuses in utero so I guess some types of IVF research are prohibited (or would be if the research methods were subjected to judicial review).
          Here is the full text of the amendment.

          “SEC. 509. (a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for—(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or (2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under 45 CFR 46.204(b) and section 498(b) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 289g(b)). (b) For purposes of this section, the term ‘‘human embryo or embryos’’ includes any organism, not protected as a human subject under 45 CFR 46 as of the date of the enactment of this Act, that is derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from one or more human gametes or human diploid cells.”

    2. Judges are supposed to interpret laws, not pass them. In this case, it was Congress that passed a law saying federal funding couldn’t be used for research that involved destroying human embryos. So the law is stupid, not the ruling.

  3. Duly noted, Francis.

    I was thinking about this after cooling down from an afternoon jog (inspired by PZ’s current medical condition).

    BioLogos is set up to promote the intersection of science and religion. But the intersection is impossible to come to.

    On science’s side, we are to respect the right of religion to announce a “different way of understanding”, regardless of the truthfulness or even reasonableness of a truth claim. Which runs completely contrary to the definition of what science *does*.

    On religion’s side, they appear to be advocating that every Christian convert to their specific sect (whichever it is, I can’t quite get it) with its own very specific set of beliefs. But which sect is it? Impossible to tell.

    Is it Catholicism? No. They oppose stem cell research.
    Baptist? No, they really and truly believe in a 6000 year old universe.
    One can go down the list of all of the organized religions and never find one that “intersects” with science in the way that Dr. Collins insists it must.

    So. Until and unless all religions meet the BioLogos standards of what is “appropriate” to believe and not believe, we’re left arguing with a ghost. A fiction of his imagination. A nonexistent religion with an undefinable dogma.

    The only thing, as ever, that is clear is this: God always agrees with whatever Dr. Collins thinks is correct.

    1. Collins is a self-hating, groveling Christian–he would never be so over-weening with pride to think that god always agrees with him. More like Collins agrees with what he thinks God is thinking. Gotta put a self-effacing spin on it, you know.

      What an useless administrator Collins is–tangled up in faith so completely as to never focus on the real reason why this has come to pass. Hey, Collins, your Biologos buddies aren’t doing their job well enough, are they? They haven’t greased the communication channels that exist only in your imagination between science and religion enough so Christians will stop acting like primitive idiots?

      1. Ah yes, you’re completely correct.

        Dr. Collins agrees with God(TM), not the other way around.

        Do you have any insight into whether there is a particular Christian sect holds the precise views espoused by BioLogos? I gotta keep my eye on those buggers.

        1. You know, I’ve always wanted to ask a theist “On which topics do you most disagree with God, and why?” – after all, if you have that much vaunted free will, surely you can disagree with God on some topics.

          Apparently now I have an answer, at least w.r.t Francis Collins.

          1. There has been some interesting research in this arena lately. Actual peer-review scientific research.

            Sadly, not great insights were to be had, however.

            It seems that god agrees with the opinions of those expressing those opinions. There is very little cognitive disconnect in this regard. Everyone makes up their own mind, and then finds a justification so that god agrees with their opinion.

            Fascinating research. If I had more time, I’d look it up. But late to work – maybe a bit later.

      2. Collins has devoted considerable effort to push the idea that God exists and cares about our lives. How shocked could he possibly be when people enact legislation to comply with God’s views?

        Sure, his conception of God may support embryonic stem cell research (funny how a geneticist’s God supports genetic research) but is he really so insulated about our culture as to be unaware of what the different churches preach, especially the Catholic church? He’s got a right to be disappointed and upset, he don’t have any right to be shocked.

  4. Collins wrote:

    “This decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research,”

    But, Tony Perkins who hailed the judicial decision as a victory wrote:

    “Embryonic stem cell research is irresponsible and scientifically unworthy,”

    Don’t these two guys talk? I say that Tony’s people get with Francis’ people and they do lunch and sort this out.

  5. p.s. There’s a Chinese website taking orders for parts.

    Knowing how my brain’s been behaving I’ve put in for a Model year 2016 Sino-Synapse 3000 Mk II. Comes pre-programmed with Mandarin and Calc II (with which I struggled)

  6. Yes, I thought the same thing yesterday when the BBC mumbled something about “NIH director Francis Collins said ‘Oh ooh burgle wurgle tut tut dear oh dear.'” Whose doing do you think this is, Dr Collins?

  7. Sadly, the decision was, IMHO, correct. The law is very clear and the intent plain, albeit stupid. What needs to happen is that the law needs to be changed. But that is not likely to happen anytime soon, certainly not before November and probably not after – especially if the Dems lose any seats in the Senate.

    1. No doubt you’re correct.

      And no doubt the people most affected by this will not understand that this bright shining turd of a law is what you get when you let religious morons dip too deeply into politics.

      People don’t just vote against their economic interests.

      1. Correction: people don’t vote against their perceived economic interests.

        They’ll vote for things that completely screw them as long as the advocates frame it properly.

        1. Indeed, why else would the working class ever vote conservative? They’ve been sold a crock of shit that’s why. Same with religion.

    1. Now I’ve got a vision of the current Pope saying “Mine is an evil laugh!”

      Which seems somehow appropriate.

  8. I’d like to hear why Collins considers his understanding of The Divine Moral Law better than that other people.

    That’s the proper question, one that Collins will not (and cannot) answer. Remember, this is the “man of science” whose religious faith is based on a non-squitur. (I saw a frozen waterfall that had three parts, like the Trinity. Therefore Jesus.)

    1. Surely it cannot be religion that interfered. Religion is supposed to be a pure beacon of shining light in the darkness! Can’t we just blame it on conservatives, or fundamentalists without bringing religion into focus at all?

  9. Wait just a fucking minute: evangelical Christian Francis Collins is “stunned” by this decision?! I guess he must have been really busy in the lab these past two decades or so and not noticed that abortion, and therefore embryonic stem cells, are anathema to his co-religionists. What the hell did he think was going to happen?

    Welcome to compatibility of science and religion, bucko. I hope you’re fucking satisfied. Just pray to whatever sky fairy you believe in that, in the end, your confreres won’t put you up against the wall as a heretic when the theocracy comes.

  10. I’d like to hear why Collins considers his understanding of The Divine Moral Law better than that of other people.

    Hey, you know what? So would I. But my initial reaction remains, which is that I don’t remember another political appointee defending science so forcefully.

    Collins developed BioLogos in order to cajole evangelical Christians away from biblical inerrancy. And now, here he is, pissing them all off seriously because he understands his obligation to the scientific community of which he is a member.

    Superstitions notwithstanding, that is balls, my friends, and I admire it.

    1. Yeah. I was pleased as punch at his incredible compartmentalization in this area. When I heard about the decision I didn’t think Collins, or anyone from the Obama administration for that matter, would say anything. I figured they’d just roll-over and play dead like they always do…

      So, hat-tip to Collins for doing what he was supposed to do. It’s a rare thing anymore.

      1. I think, to be fair to Collins, he has been consistent regarding his professed view of stem cell research. He has always publicly supported it and has come out and said exactly what I would expect of any decent head of the NIH. We criticized Collins for talking religion rather than science when he was being appointed to his post and I think it we should be consistent ourselves in wishing him to stick to the science in his public pronouncements.
        Having said that I wonder if the sectarian point of this issue is of importance here. Collins is an evangelical rather than a Catholic and it is the Catholic church that spearheads the opposition to stem cell research. When pushed they will admit that their reasoning about the immorality of stem cell research is the same as for fertility treatments such as in-vitro fertilization (which they also want outlawed).
        Perhaps Collins should be commended on the current matter and the same questions should be posed towards Ken Miller whose church is behind the anti-stem cell research movement?

  11. I don’t quite get the criticism for Collins in this instance.It’s not like cognitive dissonance is a new thing for him, and to make a big deal of the fact that he is pro SCR while it’s his xtian friends who are lobbying against it, is really just ho hum so what.At least he’s got this one right for once.

  12. Coyne:

    But he surely must realize that the strongest opposition to that research comes from his own confrères: conservative Christians wielding the very same “moral law” that they all see as given by God.

    Collins, I am nearly certain, would argue that his similar religious background enables him to speak to them with an authority they would not credit to an unbeliever, and in religious language they are better able to understand.

  13. I think we should be careful not to absolve the scientists who wrote the now canceled NIH grants from all responsibility in this matter.
    Far from being a matter that should have “stunned” anyone, this was an inevitable problem that the Obama administration were well aware of – for at least the last 18 months since the president vetoed the ban on federal funds for stem cell research.
    This is not an obscure legal technicality – it was pointed out in the mainstream news media almost 18 months ago.
    As for the scientists themselves, being aware of potential ethical or legal issues is an essential element to grant writing and it is their responsibility to ensure that their grant requests comply with the law or the likely legal interpretations of the law. In the religion polluted atmosphere of the US such a challenge was inevitable so long as Obama was willing to sign the Dickey-Wicker amendment. Pressure from the scientific community should have been applied on Obama to remove the Dickey-Wicker amendment on the two occasions since his election he has chosen to do so.

  14. Religion has nothing to do with logic or consistency. “Moral law” is just an opinion, not a “natural law”.

    If everyone would accept the irrationality of religion, the quarrels between gnus, faitheists and theists would become much less frequent. Yes, I think even an honest theist must admit that his/her faith is irrational.

  15. Leaving the atrocious religious motivations aside, Collins indeed have balls; it’s good that he took them out for a swing.

    But Obama has cojones too:

    “The Obama administration will appeal a judge’s decision that blocks federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

    The appeal is expected this week, said spokesman Matthew Miller.

    “From what we can tell, this would also stop the research that President (George W.) Bush had allowed to go forward early in his presidency,” White House spokesman Bill Burton said ahead of the Justice Department’s formal announcement. “So we’re exploring all possible avenues to make sure that we can continue to do this critical lifesaving research.””

    1. Oops, that is actually two quotes with a cut in between. Sorry about that, see the link for the whole text and proper context.

  16. In another angle, Collin’s self-taken mandate for speaking is taking a beating, as are US christian accommodationists in general:

    “The proportion of Americans with no religious affiliation doubled in the 1990s and has continued to rise in the 21st century,” Schwadel said. “With the decline in religious disaffiliation among post-Boomer cohorts, it is possible that this growth in non-affiliation may soon level off.”

    Though Generation X’s religious adherents are relatively durable, the generation as a whole is still more likely than previous ones to be raised with no religious preference, according to the research. Religious non-affiliation in the United States grew from between 6 percent and 8 percent in the 1970s and 1980s to nearly 16 percent by 2006. […]

    So why are religious members of Gen-X so much less likely to leave religion? For one, Schwadel said, the American religious scene is more dynamic and textured than it was when Baby Boomers were coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s, which has left the younger generation more choices. If they aren’t happy with a particular religion, they can more easily find a substitute instead of falling away entirely.

    “Social scientists have noted that what we call the ‘religious marketplace’ has greatly expanded in recent decades,” Schwadel said. “Historically, it was thought that this religious pluralism was detrimental to the vitality of American religion. While many still hold this view, others suggest that more choices lead to greater religious affiliation and commitment.”

    The long-term impact of the decline in disaffiliation among post-Boomers remains to be seen, he said.

    “While this trend is good news for those who worry about declining religious adherence, the Boomers’ enmity toward organized religion is still evident in the relatively large proportion of their children and grandchildren who are raised with no religious affiliation,” Schwadel said.

    [My bold.]

    1. Sorry, that was too long.

      Short points:

      You can find support for the groups in the new data; atheists can look at the continued growth of non-affiliated, faitheists can look at the decreasing growth of dis-affiliated.

      You can’t, AFAIU, find support for accommodationist strategy in the data. If it has any effect, it is not enough for the purpose.

  17. Trying to find a positive spin… maybe this goes some way to explain his appointment. If the administration expected something like this to go down, Collins is in a unique position to make some short term tactical gains in public opinion on this matter. “Hey, I’m a superstitious self-righteous evangelical just like you… and I support embryonic stem cell research! What’s the problem?”

  18. This is probably the worst thing to ask in this forum, but why so much hate directed at Collins in *this* instance?

    This is one time where he agrees with what most of you are saying (the ruling is stupid), but it seems like that just isn’t good enough because he still identifies as Christian.

    1. I doubt many people here hate him, what you’re seeing is probably a combination of two things.

      First is the ironic clash between him claiming to be shocked (picture him clutching his pearls, fanning his face, “shocked I tell you”) that this could happen and the fact that his own religious group (the Catholic church) is one of the biggest supporters of this ban.

      Second is the equally painful irony that he has spent considerable time over the past few years to evangelizing Christianity, written several books supporting faith, and formed the BioLogos group (he has since resigned from there because of his gov’t appointment but his group has gone on to defend Last Thursdayism and Creationism as valid alternatives to science or empiricism). The primary opposition to embryonic stem cells comes from these faith groups so again it’s hard to act shocked.

      Ultimately is boils down to this: he devotes his personal life to saying science & religion are compatible and to propping up faith, yet in his professional life he is being frustrated and attacked by these very faith groups. He has built and defended his own worst enemies and the precious dear can’t see the conflict.

      Incidentally, he’s also one that professes that there’s no conflict between science and religion. If he can’t see that religious groups in the US oppose stem cell research, a fact which should be blindingly obvious to anyone who follows the subject, it should raise serious questions about his ability to spot conflicts elsewhere. As if we weren’t already asking those questions.

      So hate? No. He’s just another clueless Christian who is being caught by the very forces he supports.

      1. his own religious group (the Catholic church)

        Is he actually a Catholic? I can’t find any reference to his beliefs more specific than “evangelical Christian”, and the “evangelical” part strongly suggests he isn’t Catholic.

        1. It’s not just the Catholic church that opposes stem cell research.

          Southern Baptists (the largest Protestant denomination) have opposed it for years.

          1. Wait, my bad. Southern Baptists aren’t the largest Protestant denomination.

            Methodists are: and they support stem cell research, albeit while holding their nose in disgust.

            “…Given the reality that most, if not all, of these excess embryos will be discarded—we believe that it is morally tolerable to use existing embryos for stem cell research purposes. This position is a matter of weighing the danger of further eroding the respect due to potential life against the possible, therapeutic benefits that are hoped for from such research….”

            1. Ah, yes, Biblically-base utilitarianism. If only the religious were so pragmatic and hypocritical about all things.

    2. Mandi — I basically agree with you. Far be it from me to pass up a chance to mock Francis “Clown Shoes” Collins, but I don’t see the problem in this instance. Yes, I’m sure he is well aware that this opposition is coming largely from his fellow Evangelicals. He’s still right for speaking out against it…

      1. Of course he’s right to speak out against it.

        But it’s like gently tapping the breaks while your foot has the accelerator floored. I’m not going to give him much credit for trying to fix the problem while he’s still supporting the mechanism which caused it in the first place.

  19. There is no need to do the research in the dirty christian infested United State.

    Besides I like laughing at that silly Francis (waterfalls) Collins.

  20. God speaks with a forked tongue! And those different interpretations underpins Theodore Drange’s argument from unbelief, that had He wanted us all to know Him, He’d have authored contradictory books!
    That forked tongue!
    And also thanks to Articulett and others here1

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