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Science vs. religion at the NIH?


As a church-going scientist-turned-writer, I was on the fence about the recent nomination of geneticist Francis Collins to lead the National Institutes of Health. There's no doubt that Collins has loads of research and administrative experience (he's the former head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, for one). But he's also an evangelical Christian who believes that God had a hand in the evolution of man's moral compass and free will. In fact, he even wrote a book about it.

Critics worry that, in his new role, Collins will let his religious beliefs affect our national science policy. Lately, the rumbling has been getting louder. Sam Harris, the co-founder of the Reason Project and author of The End of Faith, wrote recently in an op-ed for the New York Times about his concern that Collins won't fully support research aimed at understanding the mysteries of the human mind. "Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?," he asks.

I respect Harris' point and share some of his concerns. The last thing we need is to be steamrolled again with the belief-trumps-reason flavor of science policy that we've been force fed for the previous eight years. But as someone who has struggled with my own faith, I admire the ease with which Collins meshes his belief with his work and bristle a bit at the assumption that a religious person can't respect others' viewpoints--particularly in the workplace. Finally, it's worth noting that Harris himself is a bit of a lightning rod when it comes to discussions of faith and the role of religion in world history.

Frankly, I think it's past time for an honest discussion between scientists and Christians, and even Christian scientists. An open dialogue might not only help those of us trying to keep a foot in both camps, but also to head off some of the divisive culture clashes that makes people feel they have to pick a side at all.

At the end of the day, I've yet to see any evidence that Collins would let his religious beliefs affect NIH policy. Until that happens, I'll be in favor of his nomination. After all, there are other, more tangible and immediate threats to the future of research. Look at the Issa (R-CA) amendment, for one. The amendment, which has just been approved by voice vote in the the House, singles out and revokes funding for three previously funded, peer-reviewed NIH grants focused on HIV/AIDS prevention simply because Issa feels they are a waste of money. Now that's scary. It's also a blog post for another day.

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