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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Opinions on Francis Collins Nomination

It's been a week since President Obama announced his intent to nominate Dr. Francis Collins as head of the National Institutes of Health. In that time, there's been lots of reaction to the pick.

Steven Waldman, co-founder and editor in chief of Beliefnet, thinks the nomination is a "culture war statement":

To me, Mr. Collins is not just a scientific leader, he's a Christian role model. He shows that being a believer doesn't mean checking your brain at the church door, that people of faith have just as much intellectual heft as seculars and, most important, how faith and science can happily co-exist.
Michael Gerson, a former speech writer for George W. Bush, also likes the choice of Collins, a theistic scientist who favors evolution (and embryonic stem cell research) and sees "modern science and Christianity are not competing answers to the same question; they are ways of thinking about two very different sets of questions, both of which should be taken seriously." According to Gerson:
Collins' appointment says something good about the maturity of modern evangelicalism, which is starting to abandon some of its least productive debates with modernity. Criticisms of evolution, rooted in 19th-century controversies, have done little more than set up religious young people for entirely unnecessary crises of faith as they encounter scientific knowledge. In the running conflict of modern biology and evangelicalism, Collins is a peacemaker.
Everyone seems to agree he'd make a good administrator (Collins led the public effort to sequence the human genome "ahead of schedule and under budget.") Yet there are those who have misgivings about the pick—not as a result of Collins' scientific qualifications per se or his personal religious beliefs but because of his very public faith commitments. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker explains:
It’s not that I think that there should be a religious litmus test for public science administrators, or that being a devout Christian is a disqualification. But in Collins’s case, it is not a matter of private belief, but public advocacy. The director of NIH is not just a bureaucrat who tends the money pipeline between the treasury and molecular biologists (which is how many scientists see the position). He or she is also a public face of science, someone who commands one of the major bully pulpits for science in the country. The director testifies before Congress, sets priorities, selects speakers and panelists, and is in many regards a symbol for biomedical research in the U.S. and the world. In that regard, many of Collins’s advocacy statements are deeply disturbing.
Others, however, see a more positive spin on Collins' public defense of religion and discussion of faith. Chris Wilson of Slate suggests:
If Collins' faith mollifies even a few political conservatives who would otherwise continue to waste time and money fighting research efforts that violate their specific religious tenets, then the benefits of his faith should outweigh whatever qualms scientists might have.