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Francis Collins’ “Five Themes” for the NIH

One of the advantages of hanging out around home on the proverbial staycation is that, instead of actually paying more attention to the news, I’ve paid less attention to the news. That’s why I didn’t notice some stories from earlier this week about what the new director of the NIH, Francis Collins, plans to do.

Regular readers probably know that, other than the occasional snarky comment on other people’s blogs, I haven’t (much) engaged in the blogospheric kerfuffle over Collins’ religion and the (in my opinion) vastly overblown fear in some quarters that he would inject his religion into his job as NIH director or somehow restrain investigation into areas that might conflict with his religion. Indeed, I was particularly disturbed at, of all people, Michael Shermer’s argument that his evangelical religion in essence disqualifies him because of what his beliefs entail, writing that “”there is a nontrivial chance that his religious convictions will influence his decisions as a policy maker for science” without providing in his article one shred of evidence that Dr. Collins’ religious convictions have ever influenced his decisions as a federal policymaker for science. This post surprised me because Shermer is usually less dogmatic than that. In any case, the problem with Shermer’s criticism is pretty much the same problem with every critic of of Collins, with Sam Harris characteristically being the worst. They speculate on what Collins might do based on his religion, rather than looking at his 30 year track record of what he has done, which, to my reading, has shown no evidence that he’s ever let his religious beliefs influence his decisions as a major maker and implementer of science policy. It would be different if Collins didn’t have such a long and detailed track record in leadership positions in the NIH and elsewhere to examine, but he does, and nothing in that track record suggests that the fears of Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, P.Z. Myers, and other influential atheists are warranted or even realistic, which is one reason why these criticisms strike me as far more about being against religion than they are for being for good science.

Be that as it may (and now that I’ve managed a brief venting that could have been the topic of an Orac-ian epic post a few weeks ago if I had been in the mood then to enter a fray that I’ve become tired of), what interested me more than this non-issue (again, as far as I’m concerned) is what Francis Collins will do as director of the NIH. That is becoming more clear with an article that appeared on Monday, in which Collins lays out five themes that he plans on pursuing.

First, I agree 100% with Collins’ first order of business:

Collins said that “job one” is dealing with what happens when the $10.4 billion that NIH received as part of this year’s stimulus package runs out in 2011. NIH faces “a perfect storm,” he said, partly driven by a flood of more than 20,000 applications for stimulus-funded grants, that could bring record-low success rates if the agency’s budget doesn’t rise above the current $30.6 billion. He will argue for more funding by telling Congress that NIH funding stimulates local economies and by emphasizing “themes that clearly resonate.” He noted that $40 billion, which some groups are pushing for, is “within [the] envelope” of what NIH would need to restore losses to inflation since 2003.

Indeed. If you think things have been bad as far as paylines go over the last three or four years, wait and see what happens once the share of Obama stimulus money doled out to the NIH runs out. It’s going to get even uglier than it was from 2005 to 2009 if something isn’t done, regardless of who is NIH director.

Collins also tried to allay one big fear of mine (and many others), namely that he is so enamored of “big science” that he will shortchange the individual investigator and cut back on funding of individual R01 grants:

He assured his audience that “the mainstay” will be the individual investigator; anybody who thinks otherwise “need look no further” than the genome institute’s intramural program, where research is “driven by ideas” and where he will keep his lab.

I’m not reassured, for reasons that I will discuss shortly. For one thing, the intramural program is a lot different than the extramural program, and being in the intramural program as the director of the NIH is a lot different than being in the intramural program as almost anyone else. Competition for extramural grants is a lot more cut-throat these days, for one thing. I once sat through a talk by Dr. John Niederhuber, the head of the National Cancer Institute, in which he tried to tell us that he knew how tough it was out there keeping a lab going. As an example, he mentioned that he understood how some labs might not be able to hire that extra postdoc or technician. My reaction? I couldn’t believe how completely out of touch he was. Sure, for big-time researchers like him, difficulty getting grants may mean that he has only two R01s instead of three, but for most of the rest of us it can easily mean the difference between having a lab and not having a lab anymore, not between having ten postdocs and having eight postdocs. I truly hope that Collins is not as out of touch as Niederhuber is.

So on to Collins’ themes:

1. “…large biology projects are one of Collins’s five priorities. He will promote high-throughput technologies in areas that are “poised for this kind of approach,” such as gene transcription and autism studies.” I’ve heard no word yet from Collins on how he will reconcile his claim that the individual investigator will be the mainstay with his emphasis in large biology projects. Unless more money is made available, something’s going to have to give, and my guess is that it won’t be one of Collins’ five themes. Notice how he didn’t include support of individual investigators as one of those themes. In any case, large biology projects have their role. They do their best when the challenges are primarily technological, methodological, and analytical, as they were for the Human Genome Project. After all, we knew that there was a definite answer. The human genome has a sequence, and that sequence was clearly knowable; all it took were the resources and improvements in technology and methodology necessary to achieve it. Such projects have a less successful track record when it comes to more open-ended questions, where we don’t know what genes will be important for various diseases or in what combinations. We’ve been doing this sort of thing for cancer for a decade now, and, although there have been lots of interesting observations, treatments based on those observations have been precious few. Which brings us to…

2. Translational research. Every NIH director I can remember has said that translational research is a priority. This is happy speak that is expected of every director. It’s meaningless. After all, translational research is the NIH’s raison d’être. It’s why the U.S. government is willing to fund the NIH to the tune of approximately $30 billion a year. My one concern, though, is that, like so many NIH directors before, Collins may be overselling the promise of genomic medicine and translational research. Indeed, in an article 10 years ago, Collins wrote in Scientific American:

Within 20 years, novel drugs will be available that derive from a detailed molecular understanding of common illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The drugs will target molecules logically and therefore be potent without significant side effects.

Ten years on, I’m not sure we’re that much closer to such an understanding. Moreover, as Neil Greenspan points out:

This statement is surprising, and was so at its publication, regardless of the effectiveness of genomics in identifying genes associated with diseases. The notion of drugs without side-effects (even a single drug!), is scientifically dubious if not preposterous. Molecules can never be absolutely specific for other molecules (4) and even if molecular interactions were absolutely precise, the inhibition or activation of one cellular or physiological process frequently affects functionally linked processes not intentionally targeted by the therapy. Even those with no special training in or knowledge of biology or medicine should be skeptical of such a prediction if only because every drug they have ever taken or heard about has been associated with significant side effects at some doses in some people.

If anything, over the years, Dr. Collins’ enthusiasm for genomic medicine and “personalized medicine” (which falls under theme #1) is undiminished and may have grown. In any case, the danger in overselling genomic medicine and translational research is that, when results don’t come as fast as predicted, it will become harder to persuade lawmakers to maintain and increase the NIH budget. That is a political reality. I’ve argued in the past that a robust pipeline of basic science discoveries is absolutely essential to a credible translational research effort, because it is basic science upon which translational science is built. But the process is slow. As I’ve pointed out before, it not infrequently takes decades to translate a basic science discovery into an actual treatment. It’s worthwhile to try to speed up that cycle, but it is potentially risky to oversell how fast investments in research, basic or translational, are likely to pay off.

3. Health care reform, including research comparing treatments. I’ve been skeptical of comparative effectiveness research, not because I don’t think it’s a potentially good idea but rather because (1) it’s about as scientifically uninteresting research as I can imagine (for instance, comparing one existing drug against another), which means that a lot of incentives will be necessary to entice researchers to do it, and (2) it’s also oversold. Look at it this way. Clinical trials often take between 3-10 years to complete. For studies of cancer survival in tumors where differences in 10 year survival are important (like breast cancer), often it’s even longer. By the time a study comparing two or three different treatments is complete and ready for publication, it’s not uncommon for one, two, or all of the treatments under study to be obsolete. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that CER isn’t a useful thing. It most certainly is and, where appropriate, it should be pursued. It’s being oversold, because in a health care environment envisioned by Dr. Collins, where new treatments are being rapidly discovered through genomic medicine, or even in our current health care environment, CER moves too slowly, its often fatal limitation. Also, if more money isn’t forthcoming, CER will end up doing what the big science projects will do: Sucking money away from individual researchers.

4. Global health. Good luck to Dr. Collins selling that one. I mean it. I hope he can pull it off, because global health impacts health right here in the USA. Politically, however, this will be a hard sell.

5. “…empower[ing] the biomedical research community,” which he said includes sustained funding, encouraging young investigators, and funding innovative research.” I’m not sure what this means. Every NIH director I can remember has promised to encourage young investigators and fund innovative research. Moreover, funding innovative research is difficult, as I have said before, because it’s only clear in retrospect which innovative, “risky” ideas panned out. At the time such ideas are being proposed, it’s not at all obvious how to choose between them.

In the end, I don’t give the proverbial rodential posterior what Francis Collins’ religious views are, as long as they don’t directly impact NIH science policy, and I see no evidence from his track record that there’s any reason to be concerned that he’ll be somehow injecting them into the NIH or using them to determine policy or funding priorities. Personally, I find that whole line of criticism to be a huge distraction over what is far more important in a new NIH director, namely his policy priorities. On that score, there are several valid criticisms of Collins, some of which I agree with, such as Collins’ infatuation with big science and overselling of genomics. Moreover, Collins’ “five themes” appear to be a mixed bag of priorities, most of which are worthy but many of which will also likely be in direct competition with each other for resources and attention. Big science projects, which can be highly useful when used for the right kind of project but which can also breed a scientific conservatism and groupthink given how much money and how many people are involved, will compete with encouraging innovative research and supporting young investigators, as well as CER, which, as useful as it may be for choosing which existing treatment is best, is about anything but innovative ideas, given that CER is by definition testing existing validated treatments against each other. All of these will be competing for resources, which will be very slim if more funding is not forthcoming after FY 2011. How Francis Collins balances these priorities and if he can reinvigorate the biomedical research enterprise funded by the federal government will determine his effectiveness and success, not his religious beliefs.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

51 replies on “Francis Collins’ “Five Themes” for the NIH”

However, in the final analysis, Francis knows that the only empirical method for increasing the NIH budget is through prayer.

Personally, I wonder to what extent CER will really require government funding. Major payers are increasingly demanding that drug companies include active comparators in their clinical trials, and while it’s not a regulatory requirement in the U.S. yet, I could very easily see the AHRQ getting tougher on this topic in the future. It doesn’t address the concern about timeliness, but it’s a start.

The vibe I get from reading Collins’ remarks is very much “Bureaucrat gives sales talk, film at 11.” I suppose we can’t help falling on every bit of information that comes our way and doing a close reading of each press release, but. . . meh.

Wasn’t it SG Koop whose official attitude to AIDS was diametrically opposed to his religious beliefs?

I may have the case mixed up, but I do remember being very suprised at offical statements from his office that did not fit his known relgion.

nothing in that track record suggests that the fears of Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, P.Z. Myers, and other influential atheists are warranted or even realistic

I agree the concerns are overblown, but the one religion-related thing in his track record that does make me very queasy is that he used the press conference announcing the completion of the HGP to pimp for Jesus, and then bragged about it later. I’m not hugely concerned that he’ll try to neuter science on the basis of some sort of strange Biblical belief, but I am concerned that his being in that position might contribute to the culture of fundamentalist zealotry that is infecting our nation.

I’m eager to read your concerns, but it’s frikkin’ long so haven’t had a chance yet 🙂

Now those are *legitimate* concerns. Not like PZ Meyers, et al, whose concerns strike me as more like the concerns some folks had in 1960, when they were saying that the Pope would be ruling American since JFK was Catholic (thus far, still the only non-Protestant President we’ve ever had — and arguably still the only non-WASP, since even Obama is nearly half Anglo-Saxon). It is quite possible for a person with a religious background, even evangelical, to conduct himself professionally and scientifically. I do not doubt this man’s integrity when it comes to science. Your insights give me some concern about how well he’ll fund individual researchers, though. The NIH is underfunded already; I fear it getting worse.

While I agree that some have gone beyond the evidence as to how Collins religious views MIGHT affect his job (if you actually examine the evidence of his administrative work you will fail to find a real example of a religious rather than a scientific based decision), I think his statements that religion and science are compatible were fair game for criticism. That said I think if you examine the criticism he was receiving it was of two sorts. One, the indefensible position, is that, as an evangelical christian he was unsuitable as the head of the NIH. The other was that Collins, as head of an evangelical apologetic agency that teaches things that contradict known science, was occupying a role that was incompatible with him also running the NIH.
Its a mistake to ignore the fact that a lot of the religious criticism of Collins merely asked that he disassociate himself from Biologos if he was to act as NIH director. I’ve defended his record on several occasions and said I’ve no problem with him as director yet I also don’t feel the need to ignore or go easy on his Biologos silliness (even if such criticism causes Orac to yawn!).

New NIH ethics rules were announced in 2005. Number one is
“The public must be assured that research decisions made at NIH are based on scientific evidence and not by inappropriate influences.”

It’s nice to see his resignation from Biologos Monday. ‘The NIH director needs to focus on science,” Collins told the Associated Press on Monday. ”I have no religious agenda for the NIH.’

Yet, I’m still not comfortable with a man who behaves and acts a certain way in the workplace, strictly limited by evidence, then goes home and throws all that out the window for some ancient, no need for evidence, nonsense. Can I really trust him in the lab? When there’s a controversy, can I trust his opinion not to be inappropriately influenced?

Needless to say, he will be watched very closely.

I second James Sweet. I can’t speak to Harris or Shermer’s statements (haven’t read them), but I think you do Myers a disservice in implying that he’s freaking out over Collins’ religion damaging the science. He’s not. He thinks as you and I and James do that he’ll probably handle the office appropriately on the technical administrative end, though we do worry a little. It’s the public end, the bully pulpit rhetoric, that we’re grumbling about. I don’t want him yanked, I’m just not happy with the choice. And make no mistake, his public religiosity was a factor in favor of his selection. That inherently makes it an issue.

How do you know he throws all that out the window for some ancient, no need for evidence, nonsense? You presume he does, perhaps because of a preconceived notion of evangelical Christians as people who chant incantations to their God begging forgiveness and asking for miracles while they disavow all evidence that the world is less than six thousand years old. Yet a great many evangelical Christians do not do this.

I, for one, do not believe the world is any less than about four and a half billion years old, give or take a few million, and if science indicates something to be true, I accept it as true. That’s simply rational. The power of prayer? Love and affection and moral support; nothing more. There is no empirical evidence it does anything; if the subjects are unaware of the prayers, they show no change whatsoever, and when they are aware, the changes are comparable to placebo. Life after death? If it exists, it clearly doesn’t communicate with living people. I have seen no credible evidence of a ghost or other communication from the dead. The only way the dead communicate to the living is through things they wrote while they were living, and that’s clearly not the same thing. Intelligent design? Bupkis. If it were intelligently designed, it might show some actual *intelligence*, but it doesn’t. If there is a creator god, then clearly that god did not intervene in any detectable way in the course of evolution.

But I also believe that the Universe was brought into being by a deity who wants it to flourish and who loves it very much. I believe this deity became flesh so that He could walk amongst His creation and tell it just how much He loved it. As this is not something I have scientific evidence for, I will not bring it up in a scientific discusion; it is simply irrelevant. Science deals with the natural laws of the universe; these are true regardless of whether or not there is a Creator, therefore my belief in a Creator is not important. Does this mean ever reconciling what I believe with what science shows me? Yes. If something is scientifically demonstrated which violates something taught by religion, then I have to question where the religion went wrong. What did they misinterpret? Nearly always, it’s a case of taking something much too far, and oftentimes something which was not meant to be taken literally in the first place (like the parables, which are explicitly metaphorical, and which some do indeed take literally).

The lynchpin to my acceptance of science, skepticism, and Christ is my firm belief in free will. I believe God intended us to have free will. From that, I find it unreasonable to conclude that the Bible could ever be 100% accurate (it was, after all, written by people who would have their own agendas, consciously or otherwise). I also believe that God loves us as we are — and that would include our brains and our natural curiosity. To put it a rather religious way, I think people ought to use the brains God gave them (metaphorically; I don’t believe God “designed” our brains but rather allowed them to grow as they would, just as He allowed the entire Universe to grow as it would, with life spontaneously arising in at least one place and hopefully many more).

I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. We’re pretty liberal, as evangelicals go. But we think it’s important to spread the word, and so I do. I do not ask anyone to believe it; that would be presumptious, and there is no guarantee that I am right. Indeed, it is more likely that I am wrong. But I will spread it anyway. I do not limit my evangelism to my faith, though. I evangelize about everything that I’m passionate about. Science is a biggie, especially space science and medicine, and skepticism is a big part of that. Critical thinking. Believe what you want, but know the limitations of what you believe. Be honest with yourself about them. (“This above all else: to thine own self be true.” It’s often taken to mean “be true to who you are”, but if you read the whole speech from “Hamlet”, Polonius’ advice is actually for his son Laertes to be honest with himself. It’s excellent advice.)

I’ve rambled on a bit, sort of like Polonius himself. 😉 I guess my point is that just because someone is an evangelical doesn’t mean you should accuse them of being two-faced if they are also a scientist. Just because he believes in Jesus Christ as his lord and savior doesn’t mean he isn’t well aware of the limitations of evidence for that point of view.

I’ve actually come to the point of view that Collins’ religion is an asset. In trying to bring in more funding for the NIH he will have an easier time, as an evangelical Christian, in convincing Republican legislators than someone who is not a co-religionist. It doesn’t mean he’ll succeed but it does give him a much higher likelihood of at least limited success.

I second Big Pharma Shill. Given how tight of a leash the Obama administration and assorted senators seem to be fitting on pharma, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more pull for manufacturers to fund their own head-to-head studies, instead of leaving them to the feds. If it doesn’t end up as a regulation, perhaps the PDUFA fees can be upped, with the extra cash going straight to NIH to do the work. I’m curious, how does NICE fund it in Britain?

Some Collins quotes that disturb me:

“Scientists have something to bring to this [the Genome Project], which is the facts of the matter. But scientists are not in a special position here as far as deciding the consequences for society or making moral choices about going this direction or that. That has to be done in a much broader community, and the Church, of all those communities, is probably the one in the strongest position to bring this long tradition of ethical thinking to the table. It troubles me that that has not happened; that in some instances sort of the reverse has happened.”

“If we were able to play God the way that God does, then perhaps people wouldn’t worry so much. God’s effective oversight of His creation is done in a benevolent way. We fallen creatures unfortunately can’t be counted on to act with that same benevolence. In that regard, the idea of our trying to change our own identity on a biological basis becomes immediately suspect in terms of what the motivations would be. Now, whether you call that “playing God,” which is such an overused phrase it’s sort of become almost meaningless, or whether you simply say, “That is territory we shouldn’t go into,” I’m gonna say it’s territory we shouldn’t go into.

ABERNETHY: We’re not only morally, but in physical ways we’re flawed?


Arcale, you don’t think this attitude is of even the smallest concern for the head of the NIH?

@marcia #8

“Yet, I’m still not comfortable with a man who behaves and acts a certain way in the workplace, strictly limited by evidence, then goes home and throws all that out the window for some ancient, no need for evidence, nonsense. Can I really trust him in the lab?”

Are you suggesting that to be a good scientist one must approach all decisions, 24 hours a day 7 days a week, as if it were a lab experiment?

I hate to break it to you, but we’re real people and if we approached every decision in life like it was an intricate lab experiment, none of us would be scientists because we’d throw ourselves in front of a train to end the joyless exerience. In short, scientists aren’t, and are under no requirement to be, Lt. Commander Data.


“it’s about as scientifically uninteresting research as I can imagine (for instance, comparing one existing drug against another), which means that a lot of incentives will be necessary to entice researchers to do it”

Scientifically uninteresting, true. But less research oriented academics,and community based physicians can participate in the clinical trials, and feel like real researchers. This has been a successful model in my specialty.

CER is also very expensive. Assuming the treatments being compared are effective, it takes large sample sizes to have reasonable power to detect a clinically meaningful difference.

Big pharma is not likely to fund these studies voluntarily, except in situation where they have a high probability that their drug is going to “win”

Despite the expense, I think there are times when NIH funding of these studies is justified, and may even be cost effective. For instance, the demonstration that cheap thiazide diuretics are equally, or more effective than more expensive alternative in treatment of hypertension. This will likely save Medicare $billions.

I agree with JohnV’s critique of Marcia’s concerns — I don’t have any problem whatsoever with someone believing some fairly crazy shit at home, as long as they leave it at home when they are in the workplace.

The question is whether some past comments from Collins suggest that he doesn’t completely leave it at home. We have no evidence that it ever has or ever will rise to the point of it affecting his decision-making, of course, but he has made some really cringe-worthy comments that make some of us quite uncomfortable.

I’m sure he’ll do fine, I’m sure there were far worse choices. But am I not allowed to be nervous about a guy who used a HGP press conference to praise Jesus? What if, instead, an atheist was heading up the HGP and in the press conference announcing the completion of the project he said, “Now, finally, we have no need for this silly notion of an intelligent creator.”? He’d be fired the very next day, and rightly so. That press conference was not the place for pushing one’s religious beliefs, but Collins did so anyway, and that’s kinda shitty no matter how you slice it.

I don’t. I think JohnV’s question misrepresented Marcia’s. Of course she doesn’t recommend treating every everyday decision as a lab experiment, and why would you even ask that but to underscore the absurdity of the idea? But it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that it’s either lab experiments to choose shoes or evangelical Christianity. People CAN approach every everyday choice with as much of a skeptical, evidence-based, scientific mindset as is practical and desired by them, and indeed I argue that they should.

I would also suggest he not disparage the pursuit of scientific knowledge via rigorous study as joyless and suicide-causing. Some of us live for that discovery, thank you very much.

The fact of the matter is that great conflict exists between the scientific and religious modes of thought, whether it must or not (and I believe it must). I do not think it is wrong to criticize and worry about the risks of having a Collins in his position when he holds these conflicting views, especially when we know he will probably not withold his religious views from public speech in his official capacity, or banking on that capacity in “on his own time” remarks.

You’re right, rrt, I asked that to underscore the absurdity (in my opinion) of judging scientists’ abilities as scientists based on their non-science activities. She said “can I really trust him in the lab.” Not “can I really trust him in the office making budget decisions” or “at the podium for a press conference” but “the lab”.

And no, its not that the pursuit of scientific knowledge via rigorous study is joyless and suicide-causing. Lord knows, if it was, I wouldn’t be a scientist. It would be the pursuit of every decision in life as if it were the pursuit of scientific knowledge that would be joyless and suicide-causing.

Fortunately, my PhD was awarded based on my research and not based on how I spend my free time. Getting drunk, playing video games and generally running amok falls much closer to the “ancient, no need for evidence, nonsense” category than it does “evidence based decision making.”

“People CAN approach every everyday choice with as much of a skeptical, evidence-based, scientific mindset as is practical and desired by them, and indeed I argue that they should.”

I had something long (and probably pointless) in response to this. Instead I’m going to assume that we are (or I am) having a disagreement of the definition of some terms. Because the thought of making every single choice in my life with a skeptical, evidence-based, scientific mindset makes me think of Data or Spock (old spock, not ret-conned spock), which doesn’t seem like much fun.

Concerning the conflict between the “individual investigators” aim and the “big projects” theme, I think the best way to reconcile those is to have big projects where the data is VERY quickly available to everyone. Having worked in a genome center I got the idea that our upload rate to NIH of recent data was pretty bad. I don’t see why they couldn’t get those kind of updates pushed out daily, instead of weekly, or in some cases even falling behind a couple weeks.


If I had only the BioLogos website to judge by, I’d say I wouldn’t want anyone so uninformed and lazy in charge of any scientific project. If the relationship between religion and science is so gosh darn important, why do their descriptions of purely scientific matters — the definition of a chaotic system or the evolutionary history of whales — read like they learned everything from old issues of Discover they found under the couch? Don’t they care?

Also, when it comes to gene therapy, I get nervous around people who talk about “trying to change our own identity on a biological basis”. Yes, that mutant codon in my haemoglobin gene which aborts transcription midway through and gives me thalassemia is part of my identity, and I wouldn’t want that changed. Oh no. Genomic medicine is good, but modifying the genome is an affront to human dignity! Discussing the technology in terms of effectiveness and potential side effects? That’s for issues which don’t concern our biological basis!

Ah, whatever. Let Collins have his nice office. His influence will be diluted by the rest of the bureaucracy, and maybe he’ll be too busy to go around making a fool of himself in public.

@Calli Arcale

How do you know he throws all that out the window for some ancient, no need for evidence, nonsense? You presume he does, perhaps because of a preconceived notion of evangelical Christians as people who chant incantations to their God begging forgiveness and asking for miracles while they disavow all evidence that the world is less than six thousand years old. Yet a great many evangelical Christians do not do this.

Please read the information on the BioLogos site, as well as The Language of God (Collins’ book). People’s descriptions of Collins’ faith aren’t assumptions, he’s been pretty out in the open about it. Conclusion first, then evidence.

Now, much like PZ Myers, I’m of the opinion that he’ll likely do a decent job as the NIH Administrator. I am not happy about the incident where he bragged about using the HGP press release to pimp God, but political appointments are political (heh) and it is a chance for Obama to score some points with moderate religious folk (I know the megachurch I used to attend was fairly enamoured by Collins’ book, anyway). Collins wouldn’t have been my choice, but c’est la vie. Congress still holds the purse-strings, so I’m not all that convinced that it matters too much who the NIH Director is when it comes to important things (such as getting rid of that horrid NCCAM).

Yes, I think you’re right, JohnV…semantics. I use “practical” very liberally there. 🙂

I don’t think there’s any reason to worry about how he’ll run the NIH. I’m sure he’ll do just fine.

But there are legitimate reasons to suspect he might use his position to promote religion along with science. He has done this in the past (e.g. the press conference for HGP). Those of us who think the government should not be in the business of promoting religion have a legitimate gripe there.

Also, Jason Rosenhouse pointed out an obvious double standard here. An atheist who was as open and vocal about her atheism as Collins is about his Christianity would never, ever, ever even be considered for this job. I think atheists have a legitimate gripe there, too.

When I get the time, I do intend to read more about the man. But what I’ve seen quoted here does not indicate to me that he is generally a “conclusions first, evidence later” sort of person. He is passionate about his belief, and is comfortable sharing it with other people. That’s all. Perhaps I will learn otherwise when I read more, but what I’ve seen here has not given me reason to fear his appointment.

(Note: I would oppose a person who directed the NIH from an explicitly religious standpoint, e.g. funding research into intelligent design or fudging the data to make abortion seem scarier than it is, which happened under the Bush administration.)

Would an atheist have problems if he or she were as open about their atheism? Perhaps, but I think a more pertinent question is this: would they have any harder a time than a passionate, evangelical Muslim or Hindu? I don’t know the answer to that. I’d be interested to know whether American society would have a harder time accepting (for want of a better term) an “evangelical atheist” or an evangelical Muslim or Hindu. (Muslims are of course victim to a lot of negative stereotypes right now, and Hindus have the problem of being polytheists, a view which tends to be as problematic for Christianity as atheism is. Heck, I know people who would rather hang with an atheist; they regard pagans as devil-worshippers, and at least the atheist doesn’t worship anybody and is therefore neutral.)

I think ultimately it would depend on *where* in the country, and what the position was. Director of the NIH is not very high on the radar of most religious wackos, as it’s very science-oriented. Wrong-headed as it is, they see science as anti-religion, and so they’d pretty much expect to see an atheist there anyway. A really high profile appointed position like Secretary of State — that would probably generate more fireworks. It would be very interesting to see how it would go. I would *hope* that the person would be treated no differently in any case, but I rather doubt that would happen. We have a long way yet to go as a nation.


I hate to break it to you, but we’re real people and if we approached every decision in life like it was an intricate lab experiment, none of us would be scientists because we’d throw ourselves in front of a train to end the joyless exerience.

Joyless? I haven’t been a practicing scientist for eons, and I still see the world that way.

Joyless? Hrmph.

/wanders off grumbling

But what I’ve seen quoted here does not indicate to me that he is generally a “conclusions first, evidence later” sort of person.

To be entirely clear, I meant that regarding his religious belief, I did not intend to imply that that is how he runs his labs. Some of the reasoning he employed at BioLogos is horrid in that regard, and it irritates me the amount of special pleading he goes through when discussing religion. But that’s not here or there when talking about the NIH position, unless the shoddy reasoning is reflected in his work.

Although I do have reservations about some of his opinions (e.g. embryonic stem cells are bad (why?) although it’s ok to use existing lines, his CS Lewis derived “Moral Law” being the only way to explain human morality instead of considering the possibility of it having evolved through our primate line, etc), I do not think it will have significant effect on his NIH tenure. They are just areas I would watch with interest if they came up in the course of duty.

When I get the time, I do intend to read more about the man. But what I’ve seen quoted here does not indicate to me that he is generally a “conclusions first, evidence later” sort of person.

I didn’t say he was that type of person. As I said, on the science side, I’m sure he’ll do just fine. I’m not worried about his competence to lead the NIH.

But he has, in the past, used science-related press conferences to promote religion. I don’t know if he intends to do that with his new job, but given his past I am a bit suspicious. I’m a very staunch secularist, and I think the government should be completely neutral on religion. If Collins starts talking about God at his press conferences like he did for the HGP, I’m going to be upset.

Divide and conquer, Orac?

I am disappointed, to say the least. I also think you owe PZ an apology.

Be as disappointed as you like. If I had written about this a few weeks ago in the heat of the kerfuffle, I would have been far more harsh. I was actually far more irritated then than I am now with PZ et al.; I still think they were hopelessly wrong and disingenuous when they said their objections had nothing to do with Collins’ being an evangelical Christian (well, except Shermer; he explicitly admitted as much in his post).

The problem is that, to such people, it is far more about being against religion than it is about being for good science. They believe that religion and science are utterly irreconcilable. They’ve said it time and time again. Why should I not take them at their word about that? That is the subtext that underlies their criticisms of Collins, their “it’s not about his being an evangelical Christian” notwithstanding.

How do you know he throws all that out the window for some ancient, no need for evidence, nonsense?

By reading the whacked-out gibberish on his website. I.e.: his own words.

The fact that he’s a gibbering fool doesn’t mean he might not be a competent administrator for NIH. He’ll probably be fine, because – after all – NIH is scuppers level with the water already. He won’t make it worse.

I do think it’s unfair that they probably wouldn’t consider a voodoo priest or a cargo cultist. But someone with more popular (but equally daffy) beliefs is OK. Maybe the next director of NIH will be an acupuncturist or an anti-vaxer. Why not? The bar is pretty low.

Orac writes:
it is far more about being against religion than it is about being for good science. They believe that religion and science are utterly irreconcilable.

You’re smarter than this, Orac, and I know you’ve read more closely than you pretend – so please don’t play stupid. The question isn’t one of anti-religion, it’s a question of whether or not someone can do good science when they have goofy beliefs that contradict that same science. (Hint: all sciences contradict religion) You are intimately familiar, yourself, with what can happen when people hold goofy ideological beliefs that contradict science – they’re the energy healers and antivaxers that make your blood boil regularly in your columns, here. Ultimately all anti-scientific woo-woo, whether it’s religion or CAM, depends on wilfully ignoring evidence, concocting theoretical flights of fancy for which there is no evidence, or just plain embracing the power of bullshit to transform one’s life. All of it is contradicted by science. You know this, and we all know you do.

It is impossible for you to be concerned with evidence-based medicine and science, to see the effect that evidence-less woo-woo and magical belief systems, and to try to dismiss people’s concerns about Collins as merely anti-religious. Doing so makes you look like one of those symps who wants to attack irrational woo-woos in your blog but – oh, please, spare the feelings of the faithful. ‘Cuz, uh, it’s not woo. Because, uh, they say it isn’t.

We’re anti-woo. That recontextualization clear it up a bit for you?

CER is only uninteresting if you don’t actually know anything about it.

Properly designing large studies to provide an unambiguous answer and executing the studies in a way that produces accurate data is a huge challenge. Note that trials to compare two active treatments generally have much larger sample sizes than trials comparing an active to a placebo. That’s fundamentally why so little of it gets done. Some recent trials of surgical procedures versus medical treatment come to mind (in my field, neuroscience): NASCET or the EC-IC bypass study. One of the largest medical outcomes studies was DATATOP and it generated controversy for years.

And properly designing such trials is different from designing, for example, breast cancer trials looking for differences in outcome of a few percent exactly…how? Many of these trials have many thousands of patients.

It’s not. There’s nothing in CER research that is not also a challenge in oncology research. The difference is that in oncology clinical trials one of the therapies is new.

Look, I’m not saying CER isn’t challenging. But because it isn’t studying a new therapy or a new scientific principle leading to a therapy, to translational researchers such as myself it’s about as exciting as watching paint dry. I’m glad there are people out there who like taking on these challenges, but it’s just not for me. It’s also seriously oversold.

I don’t agree, Orac, in terms of your perspective on the anti-religious criticisms of Collins. While it is by no means clear whether or not his religious beliefs will impact his decision-making as the head of NIH (even though he does seem to have some rather curious beliefs about certain aspects of human biology), it does seem abundantly clear that he’s going to use his position to promote Christianity. That seems, from what I’ve read, the primary objection (particularly by PZ). And I think that’s a perfectly valid one. With our constitution, no public official should ever use their position to promote religion. Ever.

I get the impression that he’s read the latest management bestseller. That’s an awful lot of words to say absolutely nothing worth listening to. If anything I’m worried because he’s obviously swallowed the “theme” nonsense and hence is likely to dish out research money to whatever bling catches his attention while other research withers away.
I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the criticism of PZ, Sam Harris, and others either.

The criticism wasn’t about whether Collins will let his religion influence his decisions – everyone knows he won’t and hasn’t. The problem is that he has a very clear history of using his position to promote his religion, described well by Harris.

You’re arguing the wrong point.

The man has some nutty scientific ideas. I don’t understand why it’s not fair to be concerned about what he’ll do as director of the NIH. He may have been a great head of the NHGRI, but there aren’t nearly as many opportunities for conflict with his nutty ideas there. I don’t care that he’s an Evangelical Christian, and neither do many others who are concerned. If he was an atheist with some similar poorly thought out scientific views, my view of him would be no different. He may turn out to be a great director, but writing off my concerns and the concerns of others as evangelicalaphobia is just plain wrong.

Does anyone think that Collins would have come out with the following statement if there had been no questions about his proselytizing raised by the atheistic contingent?
“I want to reassure everyone I am here to lead the NIH as best I can, as a scientist. The NIH director needs to focus on science. I have no religious agenda for the NIH.”
He has now resigned from Biologos (although I’m not sure if that would have been a necessary part of accepting the position) but, lets face it, the above sort of statement about religion and science is definitely NOT in keeping with his words of the past few years.
Can this be judged as anything other than a complete success for Coyne, PZ, Harris et al?

Given the choice between two equally qualified scientists to head the NIH, would you choose the evangelical or the non-evangelical?

Is this really his stance as Paul noted “embryonic stem cells are bad (why?) although it’s ok to use existing lines”? That’d be despicable hypocrisy (so he’s basically in favour of the old laws enacted under Bush and similar to our crazy laws in Austria & Germany?)

If any of that is true, I’d say he is a bio luddite completely unfit for this job.

“Given the choice between two equally qualified scientists to head the NIH, would you choose the evangelical or the non-evangelical?”
Or the jew or non jew?
It sounds a little different when you put it like that, doesn’t it, and that’s the reason we must judge people on their work record, not their metaphysical viewpoints.
As for the embryonic stem cells question I think Collins actual viewpoint is not that embryonic stem cell research is bad but that the creation of embryos purely for research should not be encouraged, rather we should use the excess embryos already available from fertility programs.
One doesn’t need to utilize a religious argument to find favor with this approach (there are plenty of such embryos available and the procurement of the eggs necessary for creating new embryos can be injurious to womens health – and thus the practice may result in damage to the health of women who try to sell their eggs for research).

Maybe I wasn’t clear. I meant evangelical Christian or non-evangelical Christian. The Jewish equivalent might be an ultra-orthodox Jew and a cultural Jew.

My point was that the extent of religious belief of a potential NIH head probably would be a factor that would influence the decision (all other factors being equal), because religion is magical thinking, which is at odds with science.

Works the same for non-religious woo too: Given the choice between two equally qualified scientists to head the NIH, would you choose the person who was an advocate of ‘straight’ chiropractors, or the person who was an advocate of ‘mixer’ chiropractors.

My own beef with Collins’ religious statements over science involves his inability to see the problem with the idea that accepting miracles occur causes a problem to the interpretation of any experimental result. Did I get twenty cell colonies rather than two because the drug worked or because God altered the laws of the universe and miracled a further 18 into existence? Collins would regard the cell colony example as preposterous (I’ve heard him asked this on Science Friday and that was his answer) and yet he freely accepts the idea of a miracle that brought trillions of cells to life when Jesus came back from the dead.
Having said that I also admit that this cognitive dissonance he exhibits is at such a remarkable level that he has had no problem working at a very high level in science without causing a problem to his non miracle accepting colleagues and for that reason I think he’s a safe enough figure to head the NIH.
Indeed he may even be a better head than many as probably the most pressing issue is not the religion/science kerfuffle (which is an irrelevance to working scientists – as compared to serious atheist bloggers – or joking atheist bloggers like myself) but rather the ability to increase the amount of funds coming into the NIH (something he showed some aptitude of achieving at the Genome project).

Indeed he may even be a better head than many as probably the most pressing issue is not the religion/science kerfuffle (which is an irrelevance to working scientists – as compared to serious atheist bloggers – or joking atheist bloggers like myself) but rather the ability to increase the amount of funds coming into the NIH (something he showed some aptitude of achieving at the Genome project).


To the vast majority working scientists, this religion attack is an irrelevant kerfuffle. Note that, for example, neither Sam Harris nor Michael Shermer are working scientists. Note that PZ, although a scientist, is now primarily an educator and does not depend upon the NIH to fund a laboratory. ERV does not yet have her own lab, and, I suspect, would care much less about matters like the religious beliefs of the NIH director and far more about how he’s going to help promote young investigators and increase funding levels if she had to worry about funding her own lab and losing that lab if she can’t fund it. Ditto PZ, especially if he didn’t have tenure yet and had to get NIH funding to obtain tenure.

No, to working scientists, who are the main constituency of the NIH, what is important are what research priorities Collins will set, whether he will be able to win increased funding, and what he will do to reinvigorate the research effort supported by the NIH. If you get into a room with working scientists discussing Collins (I realize it’s anecdotal experience), it’s unlikely that any of them will mention his religious views. At most, they might mention them as a curiosity. They’re a non-issue, for the most part, given his history. All working scientists tend to care about is what Collins will do to reshape the NIH–issues such as what I discussed in listing his five themes.

Just to illustrate the last point I used to have a head of department in the UK who was, and is, a young earth creationist – as well as being one of the worlds foremost experts on a particular type of leukemia. He never talked about his religious views within the job and just by talking to him about science you would never get the impression that he believed in all the Noahs ark stuff but I found out later that he certainly did believe it (he’s one of the signers of the Discovery Institutes ‘dissent from darwin’ petition and has written in praise of Henry Morris and his flood geology books).
At the same time he was excellent at bringing in funds to the lab, which, in contrast to many, was extremely well funded (primarily due to his achieving research legacies from grateful patients).
In this way his religion was completely ‘compatible’ with research, since it was his religious contacts that gave us the legacies.

Orac> I’m somewhat between the positions of you and PZ… if the only conceivable job that of the director of the NIH dealt with grants and funding, I would have no issue with Collins being an evangelical Christian. Since the job, formally or not, tends to involve some popularising of science, an evangelical anything is not well suited to the position if they are unable to keep whatever religious bent they may have out of their public appearances. Harris did provide evidence of that sort of incident in Collins’ track record.

To the vast majority working scientists, this religion attack is an irrelevant kerfuffle. Note that, for example, neither Sam Harris nor Michael Shermer are working scientists.

That doesn’t mean the claim that people are only criticizing Collins because of his religion, isn’t total BS. It is.

Sigmund, I agree for the most part, but when I first read “existing cell lines” to me it implied support for a similar policy as enacted under Bush (if I understood it correctly: no new cell lines could be made, even from those left-overs) – which is anti-scientific and hypocritical, so I was shocked to hear it.

Sure from a pragmaticl POV Collins may be a fine choice, but from an idealistic POV one could and should take offense with such a choice: atheists are already underrepresented in politics AFAIK, most (?) scientists are atheists, when he screws up because of his religion it will be too late to intervene (because no politician would care to do so), magical thinking is at odds with science, etc
Great “representative” you have there! But then again it’s mostly a political position and his religion may be an asset in such a situation…

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