On June 26, 2000, physician Francis Collins, then director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, takes the podium in the East Room of the White House in front of President Bill Clinton, senior US officials and representatives strangers. dignitaries. A team of more than a thousand scientists, led by Collins, had just assembled a first draft of the three billion letters of the human genome. Clinton called it a “staggering and humbling achievement,” rivaling that of Galileo. Collins told the audience, “We had the first glimpse of our own instruction manual, previously known to God alone.” In 2003, he would bring the Human Genome Project, one of the largest scientific collaborations in history, to completion, nearly half a billion dollars under budget and two years ahead of schedule. the calendar.
Collins, an evangelical Christian, would later describe the sequencing of the human genome as “both an amazing scientific achievement and an occasion for worship”. But, as a young man, he considered himself an atheist. Collins grew up on a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. As Peter Boyer wrote in this magazine, in 2010, he and his three brothers milked cows and shucked corn; Collins was homeschooled until sixth grade. His parents, who often hosted musicians on their property, were “sort of hippies before there were hippies,” according to singer Linda Williams. They weren’t particularly religious; When Collins was sent to church to learn choir music, he recalls being told, “You should be respectful of what they do, even if the things they talk about don’t have much of meaning.”
While a medical student at the University of North Carolina, Collins saw religion comfort patients in physical and existential pain. When an elderly woman with an incurable heart disease asked him what he believed, he found himself distraught. Over time, the question began to seem overwhelming, urgent and inevitable. Even as Collins clung to the idea that science could unravel the workings of life, he read CS Lewis and consulted his first wife’s pastor. Eventually he came to the conclusion that faith, more than science, could help illuminate morality and existence. One day, while hiking in the Cascades, he saw a frozen three-part waterfall and took it as a sign of the Holy Trinity. In the decades that followed, he argued that science and religion could coexist. In 2006, he published “The language of Goda best-selling book that presents evidence that he claims vindicates the faith. In it, Collins argues that faith is rational, that it can help answer life’s deepest questions, and that the challenges of the 21st century demand harmony between science and religion, not just a ceasefire. -fire. He then founded BioLogos, an organization that supports the idea that God created all things through the instrument of evolution.
In July 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, the world’s largest supporter of biomedical research. Collins was then a renowned geneticist who had helped to discover key genes behind cystic fibrosis, type 2 diabetes, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis and other conditions. Still, it faced high-profile opposition within the scientific community. Prominent Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has been a strong proponent of atheism, called Collins “an advocate of deeply anti-scientific beliefs.” In a Op-Ed in the Times, public intellectual Sam Harris, another prominent atheist, argued that “few things make scientific thought more difficult than religion”, and expressed concern that Collins’ views would undermine efforts to understand religion. human spirit. “One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment in health institutes,” Harris wrote. The US Senate did not seem to share these concerns: it confirmed them by a unanimous vote.
In his twelve years as director of the NIH—the longest anyone has held that position in half a century—Collins oversaw twenty-seven institutes, forty-six thousand employees and contractors, and a budget that increased to forty-two billion dollars. . He became the only president-appointed NIH director to serve in more than one administration, let alone three; he helped secure budget increases of more than forty percent, using them to fund a host of new programs and initiatives related to, among other things, brain health, addiction research, and the development of covid-19 therapies and vaccines.
In a time of historic polarization, Collins is the rare influential scientist who has managed to win and retain the trust of elected officials across the political spectrum. After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Collins was certain he would be replaced. But a group of Republican lawmakers sent Trump a letter calling Collins “the right person, at the right time, to continue leading the world’s premier biomedical research agency.” Each of the signatories was deeply conservative: they all supported gun rights, abortion restrictions, and the repeal of Obamacare. When Joe Biden was elected, in 2020, Collins again prepared to step down. But the nation was in the throes of a deadly and divisive pandemic, and when Biden asked him to stay, he agreed.
Collins, who is seventy-one, finally tendered his resignation late last year. He returned to his own research in the laboratory and, in February, accepted an acting position as acting science adviser to President Biden. In my conversations with him, I felt that his personal mission is broader than either of these two roles. “If we want to build a future for ourselves, it must be based on a shared agreement that there are standards of knowledge,” he told me. “You can be wrong about some things, in which case the knowledge has to evolve. But there is such a thing as knowledge.
During the pandemic, Collins has wrestled with a painful paradox: science is more efficient and needed than ever, and also less reliable. Researchers have revealed how a new pathogen spreads, evolves and kills; they used its genome to create life-saving vaccines in less than a year. At the same time, politicians and media figures, particularly on the right, have undermined pandemic recommendations, slandered public health officials and cast doubt on vaccines. Tucker Carlson, the host of one of America’s most-watched cable news shows, recently told his viewers that there has been a “complete failure of public health leadership.” He continued, “These people don’t take it upon themselves to know the data and say it honestly, so they’ve instilled this culture of fear instead.” Tens of millions of people, disproportionately in rural and conservative communities, have chosen not to get vaccinated against a virus that has killed nearly a million Americans. In the polls, only about a third of respondents say they have great confidence in the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration; eight out of ten say that Republicans and Democrats disagree on fundamental facts. “When the story of the worst pandemic in a century is written, the scientific response will be seen as a bright light in the midst of a dark time,” Collins told me. “But science is caught in a much bigger disillusionment with the traditional underpinnings of how we decide what is true.”
Collins rose to prominence as a scientist in another era, when Christian conservatives denounced scientists for their research using embryonic stem cells. He has worked on both sides of the cultural divide and during his tenure has helped enable many of our recent scientific successes. But the gap – and the task of bridging it which he now sees as his duty – only grows wider.
In May 2021, after helping lead the federal response to the pandemic for more than a year, during which he woke up most mornings at 4:30 a.m., Collins escaped for a weekend. end in a rented barn in Loudoun County, Va. He brought his guitar and a Bible he’s had for decades; horses and goats kept him company. Collins looked up at the blue sky and the rolling hills. He wrote, prayed and finally decided to quit his job because NIH Director Collins told me that he doesn’t pray to ask God to change his situation, but to ask God what he should do to him. -same.
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His choice was based on three considerations. The first was political: If he couldn’t commit to staying on during Biden’s term, it was only fair to give the president a chance to appoint and confirm a new director before the midterm elections. The second was institutional – Collins believes that organizations benefit from new leadership and new ideas. And the third was a social obligation: he wanted to help restore the public’s frayed faith in science. “I looked in the mirror and thought, if I have any credibility as a scientist, a Christian, apolitical, I want to spend it trying to get us to a better place,” he said. declared.
After Collins resigned, I traveled to the sprawling NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland to meet him. It was a freezing day in January and Collins arrived a few minutes late, having crossed campus after meeting Anthony Fauci, another pandemic figurehead who, like Collins, has faced vicious attacks on Internet and in the media. Collins, who is over six feet tall, wore science chic: a dark blazer, gray jeans, a black mask and Chelsea boots. We didn’t meet in Building 1, the NIH director’s house, but in Building 50, where Collins’ genetics lab is located. He welcomed me into his new, spartan, almost empty little office: shelves without books, walls without diplomas, a solitary mahogany desk.