Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Francis Collins and the National Institutes of Health (USA)

 
After many years of service as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), Francis Collins resigned from NIH last year. His reasons for quitting were widely reported in the media. Here's the press release from NIH [Francis S. Collins to Step Down as Director of National Human Genome Research Institute].
Dr. Collins explained that his decision to step down as leader of NHGRI came after much personal deliberation. "My decision was driven by a desire for an interval of time dedicated to writing, reflection and exploration of other professional opportunities in the public or private sectors," he said. "The demands and responsibilities of directing an NIH institute do not allow the time commitment necessary for this. In addition, I may need greater latitude than my current position allows to pursue other potential positions of service without encountering any possible conflicts of interest, whether real or perceived."
We now know that the "real or perceived" conflict of interest relates to the creation of The BioLogos Foundation. Here's the mission statement.
Dr. Francis Collins established The BioLogos Foundation to address the escalating culture war between science and faith in the United States. On one end of the spectrum, “new atheists” argue that science removes the need for God. On the other end, religious fundamentalists argue that the Bible requires us to reject much of modern science. Many people - including scientists and believers in God - do not find these extreme options attractive.

BioLogos represents the harmony of science and faith. It addresses the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life. To communicate this message to the general public and add to the ongoing dialog, The BioLogos Foundation created BioLogos.org.

Funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the Web site is a reliable source of scholarly thought on contemporary issues in science and faith that highlights the compatibility of modern science with traditional Christian beliefs. BioLogos.org features responses to a myriad of questions received by Collins, author of The Language of God, Karl Giberson, author of Saving Darwin, and Darrel Falk, author of Coming to Peace With Science since the publication of their books.
It's pretty obvious why running such a foundation is not compatible with a leadership role at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

That's what makes this report in Scientific American so disturbing [Former Human Genome Project leader Francis Collins likely next NIH director].
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will likely bring on geneticist Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, as its new director, Bloomberg News reported on Saturday.

The agency, which has been run by acting director Raynard Kington since October 2008 after Elias Zerhouni stepped down, is in late stages of screening Collins, noted Bloomberg.
Fortunately, we can be confident that the rumor isn't true. With Barack Obama as President of the United States, the appointment of someone like Francis Collins should never happen. Things are going to change in Washington.

Wouldn't it be ironic if the rumor were true and the new head of NIH did not have the enthusiastic support of most scientists? That's the sort of thing that happened under the previous President.


16 comments :

  1. Wouldn't it be ironic if the rumor were true and the new head of NIH did not have the enthusiastic support of most scientists?

    Would that be more ironic than if he was nominated and did have the enthusiastic support of most scientists?

    If the nomination happens, it'll be an intersting empiric test.

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  2. Reading up a bit on his religious and scientific views (e.g. on ID, evolution, stem cell research), I don't see how the majority of scientists would have any big problems with him... unless he deviates (even a little!) from his record of putting science before religion. Despite being labeled as an evangelical he's far from being a fundamentalist! If he is nominated, it'll be interesting to see how is somewhat loose interpretation of the bible is received by more traditional Christians.

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  3. Has anyone seen the video that went with the traveling Darwin Exhibit? Collins really ripped into the ID types; he spoke out forcefully against things like ID; he feels as if science is inherently naturalistic.

    I am disappointed with his religious views, but he is not a fundie.

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  4. John Pieret says,

    Would that be more ironic than if he was nominated and did have the enthusiastic support of most scientists?

    Touché!

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  5. Paul Hurtado says...

    "I don't see how the majority of scientists would have any big problems with him... unless he deviates (even a little!) from his record of putting science before religion."

    Does Collins book _The Language of God_ put science before religion?

    Sam Harris, in his review of Collins' book, says,

    "As director of the Human Genome Project, Collins participated in one of the greatest scientific achievements in human history. His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind."

    Jerry Coyne provides a link to Harris's review in his post "Collins may be NIH director" at whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/

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  6. Do other scientists actually respect Collins?

    I think hes just a lucky bastard. I mean, we all are as scientists, to a degree, but not through 'appointments'. I dunno, I just think any PI could have done what Collins did, if they were given the opportunity.

    Blag-wise, I just see non-scientists white knighting him because hes one of the few scientists theyve heard of, therefore, he must be brilliant.

    What do 'scientists' think of him?

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  7. ERV asked:
    "Do other scientists actually respect Collins?"
    I'm a scientist and about as non-accommodationalist as you will find on the question of Science and Religion. I worked in the field of genome research so I know a bit more than non-scientists about Collins. From my perspective Collin's scientific career and output has been exemplary. He made some outstanding contributions to the field in the 80's that paved the way for the gene boom of the 90's and the subsequent genome project. Thats not to say that he was the best scientist in this field, far from it, but criticizing him for his scientific work merely comes across as irrational to those who know the field.
    It is also rather illogical since the post we are talking about here is quite obviously very different to that of a PI. Collins left full time active research rather early compared to some of his contemporaries, to go into administration. Compared to them (many of whom, I do not doubt, are better scientists) he has the advantage of years of experience of high level and successful administration.
    It may be reasonable to suggest, as Larry seems to be doing that Collins biologos foundation is evidence that he's unfortunately now gone mad but one can also see clear evidence over a number of years that Collins is pretty brilliant at compartmentalizing his nutty beliefs away from his scientific work and there is no reason the believe that this situation will change.
    That said this only leaves Collins as one qualified candidate for the post and not the best qualified candidate.

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  8. Just for the information of Prof. Moran, the co-chair of President Obamas' science advisory committee is Dr. Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize winner and former NIH Director. I would be willing to bet that the president consulted with Dr. Varmus before making this appointment.

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  9. He made some outstanding contributions to the field in the 80's that paved the way for the gene boom of the 90's and the subsequent genome project.He IDed several disease genes using methods standard for the time. Thats cool, but not particularly 'brilliant'?

    ... the post we are talking about here is quite obviously very different to that of a PIAnd yet, Varmus somehow managed?
    "Prior to his appointment, he was professor of microbiology, biochemistry, and biophysics, and the American Cancer Society professor of molecular virology at UCSF. He has been working at the cutting edge of modern cell and molecular biology, and has had an active relationship with NIH for about 30 years as an intramural scientist, grantee, and public advisor."

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  10. SLC says,

    I would be willing to bet that the president consulted with Dr. Varmus before making this appointment.

    I wouldn't take that bet. You are certainly correct.

    Of course we don't know how Varmus responded but let's assume that he approved.

    Do you have a point?

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  11. Re Prof. Moran

    My point is that for several years in the 1990s, Dr. Varmus was effectively Dr. Collins' boss when the former was the NIH Director. I would suggest that he may have a better insight into Dr. Collins' qualifications and scientific competence as a result of that relationship then does Prof. Moran or Ms. ERV or Prof. PZed or Prof. Coyne.

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  12. MartinC says,

    It may be reasonable to suggest, as Larry seems to be doing that Collins biologos foundation is evidence that he's unfortunately now gone mad but one can also see clear evidence over a number of years that Collins is pretty brilliant at compartmentalizing his nutty beliefs away from his scientific work and there is no reason the believe that this situation will change.

    I agree with you.

    Given a choice between someone who has nutty beliefs—no matter how compartmentalized they are—and someone who does not, who would you choose as head of the most powerful scientific agency in the world?

    Let's look at an example of the "compartmentalization."

    Back when the first draft of the human genome was announced there was a huge press conference with President Clinton. Let me quote from Collins' book The Language of God (p. 2).

    But the most important part of his speech that most attracted public attention jumped from the scientific perspective to the spiritual. "Today," [Clinton] said, "we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God's most divine and sacred gift."

    Was I, a rigorously trained scientist, taken aback at such a blatantly religious reference by the leader of the free world at a moment such as this? Was I tempted to scowl or look at the floor in embarrassment? No, not at all. In fact I had worked closely with the president's speechwriter in the frantic days just prior to this announcement, and had strongly endorsed the inclusion of this paragraph. When it came time for me to add a few words of my own, I echoed this sentiment: "It's a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God."

    What was going on here? Why would a president and a scientist, charged with announcing a milestone in biology and medicine, feel compelled to invoke a connection with God? Aren't the scientific and spiritual worldviews antithetical, or shouldn't they at lest avoid appearing in the East Room together? What were the reasons for invoking God in those two speeches? Was this poetry? Hypocrisy? A cynical attempt to curry favor from believers, or to disarm those who might criticize this study of the human genome as reducing humankind to machinery? No. Not for me. Quite the contrary, for me the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.

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  13. Turning the question around, who would your pick(s) be to lead the NIH?

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  14. SLC says,

    I would suggest that he may have a better insight into Dr. Collins' qualifications and scientific competence as a result of that relationship then does Prof. Moran or Ms. ERV or Prof. PZed or Prof. Coyne.

    I'm not sure if you understand the issue.

    For the record, I'm not questioning the fact that Francis Collins has done some good science and I'm not questioning his skills as an administrator.

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  15. In first place, how misguiding it is to think that humans are somehow "encoded" in their DNA. I guess you have to believe in miracles to take that metaphor at literal value.
    DNA is not a code. It's not a book. It is a molecule. And sequencing it technically advantageous but in itself, nothing. A "book" indeed.
    Doing genome project only speaks of the capacity of Francis Colins to get a fairly obvious job done. He is not a genius of biology. He's not precisely changing the way biologists think, you know.
    His main talent is...political. He's making maximum use of his involvement in the genome project to peddle his weird religion-science admixture (was there quantum magic involved?)
    Collins sucks. I saw his video at the MNHN and nearly puked,.

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  16. Anyone have any serious recommendations besides Collins? He may be an idiot, but he's a useful one with research, medical, and political skills, and he certainly cares a ton about getting funding for science. Tom Cech probably deserves a mention, but I don't see how he would take the job if he doesn't want to run HHMI anymore.

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