In July 2004, I went to Washington DC to attend a meeting/symposium of the Genetic Variation Working Consortium (GVC). This was a group of about two dozen scientists who had been funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health) to study the “Ethical, Legal and Social Implications” (ELSI) of the Human Genome Project. I was among this first group of people who had gotten grants from the ELSI program to study the social implications of genetic diversity in the human population, and most of us were specifically investigating issues of race and genetics.
I was honored to be there with so many well known, highly respected population geneticists, social scientists, anthropologists, and others. We all gave brief talks (mine was on the first day of the three-day conference). When we introduced ourselves, one woman at the table said she was a lay observer representing the faith community.
On the second day, somebody new joined us, a very tall man who sat next to the non-scientist observer, and chatted with her very amiably. The man next to me (a famous geneticist) whispered to me “Oh my God, that’s Francis Collins.” I noticed that the entire room had gone quiet and everybody was studiously not staring at the Director of the NHGRI, who had only three years earlier published the first map of the entire human genome. The ELSI program was Collins’ brainchild. This kind of attention to important non-scientific consequences of scientific advances became a hallmark of Dr. Collins’ subsequent years in leadership at the NIH.
That was my first meeting with Francis, who struck me as unusually kind and gracious for such a famous and distinguished scholar. At the time, I knew little about the man, but that was to change. A few years later, while in the throes of coming to Christ (with much hesitation and gnashing of teeth), I read his book, The Language of God, which showed me that being a scientist (even an outstanding one) and a Christian was not an impossible contradiction.
Five years after that initial meeting, Francis resigned from the NHGRI to found the Christian organization Biologos, and then, in 2009, he was appointed Director of the entire NIH. Coincidentally, I arrived at the NIH as a Division Director in the Center for Scientific Review two months before Francis took over his new duties.
I came to know him well, from senior staff meetings at the NIH (where he unfailingly treated us to newly written songs sung with his guitar accompaniment) and at a couple of smaller, focused meetings on review policy issues. At the same time I frequently saw him in the Christian context of Biologos and the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and other Christian gatherings in the Washington DC area. We spoke a few times, and I was thrilled to eventually learn that he knew who I was from my role as Editor-in-Chief of the ASA magazine God and Nature. Hero worship on my part? Absolutely.
Now, after 12 years as NIH Director, Dr. Francis Collins has stepped down and is (at least for the moment) outside of the public eye. For years, Collins has been extolled by presidents, senators, the press, and so many others as an exemplary scientist and a faithful Christian. In addition to leading the NIH masterfully through 12 years of political and financial turmoil, while managing to maintain and even increase the NIH’s budget for the performance of life-saving biomedical research, Dr. Collins has had a brilliant record in setting a high moral and ethical tone to American science based on his deep Christian faith.
However, recently the chorus of praise for Dr. Collins has become less than unanimous, even among the Christian community. Some have raised issues characterized as “failures” of Collins’ tenure at the NIH.
Francis Collins has often stated that he is opposed to deliberately creating embryos for the purposes of research, but that he finds it permissible to use embryos that have already been created at IVF clinics and are destined to be discarded otherwise. Some Christian commenters who view IVF as immoral believe that Collins as a professing Christian should have worked to prevent any use of embryos for research, even those destined to be destroyed. This argument is like arguing against using the organs of a donor killed by a drunk driver because of the source of the organs’ availability.
Some critics of Collins have argued that as NIH Director, he is ultimately responsible for all funded research grants, including those that these critics object to, whether they involve the use of fetal cell lines or research on potentially deadly viruses. But that is not how NIH works.
Each of the 21 Institutes that make up the National Institutes of Health is fully autonomous—the NIH Director has no say in what research individual Institutes carry out or fund within the confines of existing policies. NIH funding decisions are made by independent panels of academic scientists, and the individual Institutes. At no point does any part of this decision go to the desk of the NIH Director.
Some politicians and journalists have claimed that Collins and Tony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are responsible for “creating SARS-CoV-2” by sponsoring gain-of-function research. This is both scientifically and administratively nonsense. The grant to Dr. Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance had nothing to do with the emergence of COVID-19, and interested readers can see the details in an excellent summary recently published in Science.
The NIH Notice of Award sent to Dr. Daszak states:
“No funds are provided and no funds can be used to support gain-of-function research covered under the October 17, 2014 White House Announcement… should any of the MERS-like or SARS-like chimeras generated under this grant show evidence of enhanced virus growth… you must stop all experiments with these viruses and provide the NIAID Program Officer… with the relevant data and information related to these unanticipated outcomes.”
In other words, the NIH did not fund gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses, and never contradicted itself on the matter.
I am confident that these politically based attacks on Francis Collins will fade away, and his unblemished record as a pioneering scientist and evangelical Christian will overcome the poisonous whispers of the ignorant and ungodly. Perhaps it’s a sign of our times that such infamies have seen the light of day. But as Christians, we know that the truth of Jesus will always triumph, and I know that our Lord smiles at Francis Collins, His good and faithful servant. Francis Collins is an American, Christian, and scientific hero, and his tale is inspirational.
Francis with my wife, Aniko Albert, and me at an annual ASA meeting in 2017 at Gordon College