Taking a high-level government job often means making a financial sacrifice in the name of the common good.
It was something Dr. Francis S. Collins, the new director of the National Institutes of Health, already had done even before his nomination to head the Bethesda-based agency. And that last time around, it led to perhaps the greatest triumph of his professional career.
When Dr. Collins was approached for government service in 1993 by then-NIH director Dr. Bernadine Healy, the geneticist-professor earlier had discovered the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis and other hereditary disease-markers while working with a team at the University of Michigan.
But Dr. Healy beat the odds, recruiting him to become the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH by appealing to his altruism to accept the big salary cut. And in less than a decade — ahead of schedule and under budget — Dr. Collins, rival biologist Craig Venter and President Clinton announced in June 2000 that a working draft of the human genome was complete.
“I knew he had a missionary heart,” Dr. Healy said in a recent telephone interview. “My view of NIH at the time was we were working on a strategic plan doing great science on behalf of human health. … NIH has positively affected the life of every man, woman and child in this country more than once.”
That missionary heart also led to the one point of controversy over his appointment by President Obama.
The evangelical Christian wrote a 2006 best-seller “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” and founded in 2009 the BioLogos Foundation to reconcile and defuse conflicting views between science and religion, which led to considerable criticism of the nomination in some liberal and anti-religious news outlets. The White House put wraps on him in the month since his July 8 nomination, declining to make Dr. Collins available for an interview.
In the end, Dr. Collins was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on Aug. 7, an indication that the criticism never gained mainstream traction. Perhaps relatedly, those who know and have worked with Dr. Collins and spoke to The Washington Times about him had naught but good to say, even people who do not share his religious views.
They describe the lanky 59-year-old scientist as genial, outgoing and inspirational.
“A man of great confidence, but there is a humility that is charming,” according to Dr. Healy.
A guitar player and motorcycle rider, he has been known to compose and perform songs instead of speeches at college commencement ceremonies. In one instance, he turned the main hook of a Frank Sinatra classic from “I did it my way” to “You did it their way,” summarizing some of the constraints of academic life to cheer on graduates.
“He is upbeat, optimistic and highly addicted to all aspects of science … an important leader in moving from sequencing the genome to thinking about how the genetics of various diseases might be pursued,” said Alan I. Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “This is a guy of tremendous creativity, vision and enough charisma to mobilize large segments of the scientific community.”
David Baltimore, a professor of biology and 1975 Nobel Laureate for Medicine, spoke similarly, saying, “You think of scientists as more controlled and dour; he is outgoing and personable.”
But on religion, “our views are quite apart. We don’t go there,” Mr. Baltimore said, admitting he has not read Dr. Collins’ best-seller. “I’ve never actually had a discussion with him” on that topic.
The seeds of that particular mission had been planted in Dr. Collins long ago when, as a practicing physician in North Carolina in his late 20s, he came across “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis and was impressed by the Oxford don’s concept of a moral law.
“What we have here is very peculiar: the concept of right and wrong appears to be universal among all members of the human species (though its application may result in wildly different outcomes),” he writes in “The Language of God,” published to explain and defend his conversion from casual agnostic to Christian believer. “It thus seems to be a phenomenon approaching that of a law, like the law of gravitation or of special relativity. Yet in this instance, it is a law that, if we are honest with ourselves, is broken with astounding regularity.”
The language he spoke about refers to the mind-boggling complexity of the genetic code, the blueprint for life, that is carried within each cell of the human body. Mr. Clinton unhesitantly gave the code a spiritual dimension when, in making the 2000 announcement of the mapping at the White House, he referred to DNA as “the language in which God created life.”
Perhaps more than anything else, Dr. Collins’ rejection of atheism in favor of theism defines the man in the public’s mind and explains why he has attracted criticism from some fellow scientists who don’t readily accept his view that religion and science are compatible.
Some regard a self-described evangelical Christian who believes in the divinity of Jesus as thereby unqualified — he was referred to as delusional at the Web site of British atheist Richard Dawkins. “I’d be much more comfortable with someone whose only agenda was science,” blogged University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne. “Jesus Goes To Bethesda” was the headline on a Slate.com column, the day after his nomination was made public.
Others, such as Dr. Joseph Perpich, formerly vice president for grants and special projects at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where Dr. Collins once was an investigator, believe “science and faith are two spheres that complement one another.” He regards Dr. Collins as “probably one of the best people to get for that place [NIH director].”
Science magazine, published by AAAS, noted the problems that await Dr. Collins at NIH are more mundane — managing a $40 billion budget, resolving conflict-of-interest rules for employees and managing the fallout after the extra $10 billion from the economic stimulus package is gone.
Physicist Karl Giberson, a science-and-religion scholar who is BioLogos’ executive vice president, praised his former colleague for a key character trait in a manager: personal ability to bring people together.
“He is a people person, a nice guy — personality traits that enable him to reach across the table with people who disagree with him and yet know he respects them. I’ve seen him when they have said nasty things to his face. But he isn’t woozy and doesn’t back down,” he said.
The two men met three years ago at a conference aimed at finding common cause between evangelical Christians who accept theistic forms of evolution, such as Dr. Collins, and members of the creationist and intelligent design movements.
The holder of a Ph.D. and M.D., from Yale University and the University of North Carolina, respectively, Dr. Collins was raised on a rural Virginia farm, the youngest of four sons born to a father who was a college professor of theater and mother who was a writer and producer of plays.
Home-schooled until the age of 10 by his mother, who had no confidence in the local school system, he graduated from high school at age 16 and went on to the University of Virginia as a major in chemistry. He soon was drawn to the field of molecular biology, the synthetic study of biology, chemistry and physics focusing on genetic inheritance.
At one point in his married life, he volunteered at a mission hospital in Nigeria with his daughter Margaret, now a physician. His wife, Diane Baker, is a genetic counselor and secretary-treasurer of the BioLogos Foundation. The couple’s other daughter is a social worker.
Until constrained by White House rules prior to confirmation by the Senate, Dr. Collins was easily available to the press.
In a 2005 interview with U.S. News & World Report, Dr. Collins named as leaders who had inspired him Archbishop Desmond Tutu, British abolitionist William Wilberforce and former Sen. Mark Hatfield — none of them scientists.
Asked to describe his faults, he listed impatience, a dislike of confrontation, and an inability to say no. His greatest fear as a leader, he said, “is that those around me will be afraid to disagree with me or to tell me bad news.”
The BioLogos Foundation, which got its start with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, was the result of queries from readers responding to the ideas he put forward in “The Language of God,” according to BioLogos communications consultant Loretta Rogers Cooper.
The letters “were mostly from college students who had grown up in Christian homes and who were familiar with a different approach to science than the one they were treading on that was a hostile approach to science in general,” she said.
He worked with young scholars and theologians, as well as other scientists, to provide answers to the most frequently asked questions. Mr. Giberson interprets what he calls “a strange increase in volume from the new atheists” to be “frustration that the tide has turned and secularism has not triumphed. … I think his position as an evangelical Christian but not a right-wing fundamentalist places him on the bull’s-eye of American culture.”