Magazine article The Humanist

Playing with Fire-Francis Collins and the National Institutes of Health

Magazine article The Humanist

Playing with Fire-Francis Collins and the National Institutes of Health

Article excerpt

THE NIH IS THE FOREMOST biomedical research funding body in the United States, with an annual budget just short of $30 billion. Since Director Elias Zerhouni stepped down last fall, the search for his successor has been conducted largely behind closed doors, as the directorship is a White House appointment.

U.S. scientists were therefore alarmed to learn in May that Francis Collins, a prominent geneticist who headed up the Human Genome Project, is being considered as the front-runner for the post. The concern comes not from Collins' scientific credentials, which are impeccable, but rather his very public persona as an evangelical Christian.

Since he resigned from the National Human Genome Research Institute (one of the twenty-seven institutes that make up the NIH), Collins has been an outspoken proponent of "directed evolution"--the concept that evolution can occur in a manner directed by a divine creator. Collins is both the founder and president of the Biologos Foundation, which posits that the fundamentals of the Christian faith are compatible with what science has discovered about evolution. To scientists familiar with Collins' career, such views aren't novel; at the June 2000 White House press conference announcing the completion of the first draft of the human genome, Collins stated: "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."

Past NIH directors have variably exercised the power that comes with the post. …

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