The latest issue of Science reports on distress in the scientific community over President Obama's selection of evangelical Francis Collins to run the National Institutes of Health (hat tip to the Catholic League):
Although many scientists say geneticist Francis Collins will make a superb director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), not everyone is celebrating. A discussion about whether Collins's very public religious views will influence his leadership of NIH played out on blogs early this spring and again in the past week. There seems to be little evidence for such worries, but they persist.
Collins has written that his beliefs played a role in the 2000 White House new conference to announce the draft sequence of the human genome, when President Bill Clinton called the human DNA sequence "the language in which God created life." In 2006, Collins wrote a book, The Language of God : A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, that describes his religious conversion at the age of 27 and how he reconciles this with the science of evolution. Richard Dawkins, the biologist and prominent antireligionist, feuded with Collins for mixing science and faith. . . .
One prominent critic, Paul Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who runs the anticreationist blog Pharyngula, faults Collins for suggesting that altruism cannot be explained by evolution and instead came from God. "Collins has got some big gaps in his understanding of the field of evolutionary biology," Myers says. In comments this spring on Pharyngula, others fretted that Collins's beliefs could influence his decisions on topics such as stem cells and sex research.
The Science article points out that not all scientists share those fears:
[S]ome scientists active in the anticreationist movement approve of his attempts to reach out to the faithful. Evolutionary geneticist Wyatt Anderson of the University of Georgia in Athens says he read Collins's book, and "I get the picture of a very rational scientist." Josh Rosenau, public information project director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, says: "It's very useful to have scientists out there like Francis Collins to talk about their beliefs and why they don't see them as in conflict with science."
What stands out in the piece is that Collins's faith is never treated as a potentially positive attribute for his leadership at NIH, other than as a public relations gesture to show Americans that faith and science aren't irreconcilable. A recent Slate article on Collins's faith, headlined " Jesus Goes to Bethesda" arrived at a similar conclusion:
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.
But isn't it possible that Collins's faith might be valuable for NIH beyond its PR power?
From spending some time with him, it appears that Collins's scientific curiosity is at least partially motivated by a faith-based desire to understand what he believes is God's universe. Isn't that a net positive, given that it helped him lead the team that decoded the human genome?
And might not his faith lend guidance on inevitable questions he'll face around scientific ethics? Don't those ethics have to be rooted in some moral or religious system that transcends pure science?