Science, religion and the NIH

25 Jul
Francis Collins: MD, PhD, Christian, guitar player, NIH director designate

Francis Collins: MD, PhD, Christian, guitar player, NIH director designate

It should come as no surprise that applause mostly greeted President Obama’s nomination of Dr. Francis Collins as the new director of the National Institutes of Health last week.

Collins, almost certain to be confirmed in the post, cemented his reputation as a first-rate scientist when he led the NIH-based effort to map the human genetic code, an achievement that’s been compared to the Apollo space program. Collins’ lab also found the genetic keys for several diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, providing essential breakthroughs to develop cures.

He also happens to be a Christian – famously so as the author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, a 2006 bestseller in which he described his conversion from atheism as a graduate student and his belief in a “wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith.”

Language book cover“I am a scientist and a believer, and I find no conflict between those world views,” he summarized for a commentary on CNN.com. “As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God’s language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God’s plan.”

Some scientists have a problem with that kind of thinking. “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs,” wrote Peter Atkins, a high-profile chemist at Oxford University. “But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they (religion and science) are such alien categories of knowledge.”

Dr. Gene Rudd, executive vice president of the Bristol-based Christian Medical and Dental Associations, thinks such views are “biased” and “shameful.”

“A generation or so ago, a scientist’s faith would have been an asset,” he said. “Historically, science has prospered in cultures that understood there was a god who created an order of things, and people tried to understand that order. You will find some anti-science thinking among a minority of people in the Christian faith, but science historically flourished among Christianity and Islam.”

Time, 1996

Time, 2006

On the other hand, not all Christians are thrilled with Collins. His views on hot-button science issues – evolution, abortion, stem-cell research – run counter to typical conservative Christian positions. For example, he accepts Darwinian evolution as fact, and while he opposes abortion in most cases, he doesn’t explicitly rule it out.

Also, while he opposes producing embryos for research, he believes it is morally defensible to use embryos that had been created for fertilization but would otherwise remain unused.

“In the process of in vitro fertilization, you almost invariably end up with more embryos than you can reimplant safely,” he explained in a 2006 interview with Salon. “Is it more ethical to leave them in those freezers forever or throw them away? Or is it more ethical to come up with some sort of use for those embryos that could help people?”

Rudd realizes that Collins’ positions will “irritate” many Christians, and his organization “will have discussions” with Collins about embryonic stem-cell research. Still, he sounded optimistic about Collins.

“He is routinely accepted as an exceptional scientist, and he’s proven to be an exceptional administrator, which can be a rare combination,” Rudd said.

Dr. William Duncan, vice provost of research at East Tennessee State University, agrees with that assessment. Collins, he said, is a “world-class scientist,” and his faith is a non-issue for Duncan.

“Religious beliefs are very private, personal decisions for all individuals,” said Duncan, an immunologist who worked at the NIH from 1987 to 2004. “I’ve known many scientists who were religious, and religion never prevented any of them from pursuing their research. Each scientist needs to balance their religious beliefs and moral values with their career objectives and daily choices.”

The stakes are high: The NIH, the world’s most significant source of research money, will distribute about $37 billion in research grants over the next 14 months. The priority is to gain good data, according to Duncan, and he thinks the institutes’ review and decision-making process is “very transparent.”

“The NIH and the funding agencies in this country are primarily based on not on what your belief is but what is your proposal, the data, your plans,” Duncan said. “Scientists pursue knowledge, and the best science is done in an unbiased fashion. It’s really evidence-based data that drives the good science.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 25 July 2009.

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