The New York Times has an interesting article today on new NIH director Francis Collins, MD, PhD. In it, reporter Gardiner Harris discusses with the Harley-ridding, guitar-playing, leather-clad Collins the early days of his directorship, the culture of science and what he hopes to accomplish at the institute - namely a steady increase in funding to complement the $10 billion chunk of stimulus money already awarded. The interview also touches on a couple of topics near and dear to my heart: Collins' reconciliation of his religious beliefs and his science background, which I blogged about in July, and his intentions to encourage NIH-funded basic scientists to couch their work in terms of possible clinical or therapeutic benefits, the subject of my recent article in Stanford Medicine magazine. "We're not the National Institutes of Basic Sciences," he's quoted in the article as saying. "We're the National Institutes of Health." Point well made, but it might rankle some.
I'm still cheering for Collins. I like what he has to say about science 'illuminating the work and language of God' and I hope he has what it takes to popularize the field in a way that will make students and politicians alike sit up and take notice. But the very existence of the Times piece is indicative of how polarizing he could be, and many scientists are taking a watch and wait approach.
"There will be a moment of truth for Dr. Collins," predicts Stanford's own Irving Weissman, MD, in the article. Weissman, who directs Stanford's Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, foresees a time when Collins' twin allegiances to his faith and his job conflict. If and when that happens, I hope he chooses his course wisely. I, for one, wouldn't presume to tell him what to do.