Francis Collins, President Obama’s pick to be the new head of NIH, strikes me as the perfect nominee. How can I, a non-scientist, make this claim? Do I really have the ability to evaluate the life work of this accomplished scientist? Can I make a reasonable conclusion about the implications of his appointment over the nation’s largest science-related budget? Of course not! But neither can individuals like Sam Harris or David Kilinghoffer, and that hasn’t stopped them. In fact, their fear-mongering and ranting on the subject suggest that we have much to celebrate about the President’s choice.
The appropriateness of Dr. Collins’ nomination to lead NIH can be measured by the degree of consternation it causes ideologues from both the savagely secular and rabidly religious camps, including Mr. Harris and Mr. Klinghoffer, respectively.
Unlike these two gentlemen who make a career out of the promotion of narrowly defined and highly aggressive ideologies, Collins has spent a life contributing to the advancement of science, while publically acknowledging beliefs which subject him to an extra degree of scrutiny by all sides. Sounds like a good leadership model to me.
Unlike his critics, whose careers are advanced only to the extent that they either convince people of their own views to the exclusion of all others, or become increasingly extreme in the views they hold in order to gain attention, Dr. Collins has spent his life testing and revising his conclusions, and like any scientist, is most successful when things he once thought true, are proved false, thus creating new knowledge. That of course, is the real difference between a scientist and a propagandist – a distinction which seems difficult for his critics to maintain, as they only want Collins to say that which they already believe.
What bothers Collins’ critics is precisely what makes his appointment so interesting. He is willing to live with limits as to the claims which can be made either by religion or science, and with full awareness of each, remains committed to both. While the most influential scientist in America need not be religious, he better possess a measure of modesty. Francis Collins does. It’s something which we should all celebrate, and from which his critics should learn.