New NIH Director Emphasizes Practical Science

A highly accomplished geneticist who is not afraid to express his religious convictions, Dr. Francis Collins assures the public that his focus as the new director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will be on science, not religion.

As Dr. Collins publically stated today, "The NIH director needs to focus on science. I have no religious agenda for the NIH."

In his first interview before formally greeting the employees of the $40-billion agency that he has been appointed to direct, Dr. Collins added, "Here we are at a circumstance where I think our country is seeking maybe to redefine our image a bit in the world, from being the soldier to the world to being perhaps the doctor to the world. I’d like to see that happen."

President Obama announced the appointment of Dr. Collins as the new director of NIH on July 8 of this year, a decision which was met with mixed reactions from the media. Although Dr. Collins enjoys a widely respected, sterling reputation among scientists, less-informed critics in the media were concerned, at least initially, that the religious views which Dr. Collins espouses may interfere with an objective and impartial scientific approach to directing NIH. Among other responses, an article in U.S. News & World Report at the time was entitled "Obama Names an Evangelical to Lead the NIH", claiming that "Obama this week picked a Bible-believing, loud, and proud evangelical Christian to head the National Institutes of Health." Today, however, Dr. Collins may have put such concerns to rest.

Although Dr. Collins has been described as an "evangelical Christian who has defended the inherent compatibility of science and religious beliefs", it is clear that any personal religious views to which Dr. Collins might ascribe have certainly not interfered with his scientific objectivity in the past, and he has already directed a number of very high-profile scientific projects. Several other media sources offered more scientifically based assessments of his appointment, such as the Wall Street Journal which simply reported that, "Obama Plans to Name Renowned Geneticist to Head NIH."

Dr. Collins earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Virginia in 1970, a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale in 1974, and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1977. He first distinguished himself at the University of Michigan where he gained recognition for his pioneering work in positional cloning, a type of genetic screening and gene identification technique. In 1993 he accepted an invitation to succeed Dr. James Watson (Nobel laureate and co-discoverer with Dr. Francis Crick of the helical structure of DNA) as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of 27 institutes within NIH, which he directed from 1993 to 2008. During this time Dr. Collins also became director of the Human Genome Project, an international research project which resulted in 2003 in the successful mapping of the genetic sequences of 3.1 billion chemical base pairs in the human DNA. Along with Craig Venter, founder and former president of Celera Genomics as well as the founder of The Institute for Genomic Research, Dr. Collins was awarded the "Biography of the Year" award in 2000 by the A&E Network, and U.S. News & World Report together with the Harvard Center for Public Leadership named both Collins and Venter "America’s Best Leaders" in 2005.

In 2006 Dr. Collins authored the book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief", in which he describes scientific discoveries as an "opportunity to worship". Dr. Collins awknowledges that he has been highly influenced by C.S. Lewis, especially by the book "Mere Christianity" to which Collins attributes his conversion to Christianity at the age of 27. Prior to his appointment as the new director of NIH, Dr. Collins has most recently served as president of The BioLogos Foundation, which he founded in 2009, the mission of which is to "contribute to the public voice that represents the harmony of science and faith."

Dr. Collins has received numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including election into the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. Additionally, he is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded by the President of United States.

As President Obama himself stated when he made the official announcement on July 8, "My administration is committed to promoting scientific integrity and pioneering scientific research, and I am confident that Dr. Francis Collins will lead the NIH to achieve these goals."

This year the NIH will have $40 billion at its disposal for the funding of medical research, including that which is to be conducted on human embryonic stem cells.

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