Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A New Yorker article on Francis Collins

Francis Collins has become an interesting figure for debates over science & religion. He is an outspoken Evangelical christian as well as the director of the National Institutes for Health (NIH), and his professional credentials are impeccable. After leading the Human Genome Project, he went on to write a book The Language of God. When Obama appointed him as the director of NIH, many questioned this choice - since Collins believes in at least some (past) religious miracles, and questioned if he should be in one of the most prominent posts for American science. I think this was a good choice purely from a professional view point. Now there is an interesting article about Francis Collins in last week's New Yorker. Apart from talking about the controversy over Collins' appointment and his journey to Christianity, the article also does a nice job of addressing the recent stem-cells ruling that has halted federal funding for embryonic stem-cells research. Hopefully, this ruling will get reversed, but the Congress may have to step in for this one. Here are some bits from the article about the reaction to Collins' appointment and about his upbringing:

When the geneticist Francis Collins was named director of the National Institutes of Health, last summer, he became the public face of American science and the keeper of the world’s deepest biomedical-research-funding purse. He was praised by President Obama and waved through the Senate confirmation process without objection. There also came a peer review of a sort that he’d never experienced, conducted in the press and in Internet science forums. Collins read in the Times that many of his colleagues in the scientific community believed that he suffered from “dementia.” Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, questioned the appointment on the ground that Collins was “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” P. Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris, complained, “I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown.”
Collins’s detractors did not question his professional achievements, which long ago secured his place in the first rank of international scientists. As a young researcher at Yale, Collins conceived a method of hastening the laborious process of hunting disease-causing genes by skipping across long stretches of chromosomes until the suspect gene’s neighborhood was located. As an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, in the nineteen-eighties, he and collaborators at the University of Toronto employed this method to find the gene that causes cystic fibrosis and, a year later, the genetic flaw responsible for neurofibromatosis. These breakthroughs brought him fame and, eventually, the job of director of the Human Genome Project, which promised to revolutionize medicine by identifying and mapping all the approximately twenty thousand human genes that code for protein.
President Obama’s choice of Collins for the N.I.H. touched a nerve. The George W. Bush era had been an extraordinarily fractious time in public science, beginning with Bush’s first prime-time address to the nation, in which he announced restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research. That move, and others that followed, convinced Bush’s critics that the religious right had become the final arbiter of public policy, an impression that Bush seemed little inclined to dispel. “Well, we thought we’d seen the last of the theocracy of George W. Bush, but it apparently ain’t so,” Dr. Jerry Coyne, a University of Chicago professor, wrote when Collins was appointed. “I am funded by the N.I.H., and I’m worried. Not about my own funding (although I’m a heathen cultural Jew), but about how this will affect things like stem-cell research and its funding.” 
A year later, Obama’s appointment of Collins seemed an inspired choice. The President had found not only a man who reflected his own view of the harmony between science and faith but an evangelical Christian who hoped that the government’s expansion of embryonic-stem-cell research might bring the culture war over science to a quiet end. On August 23rd, however, Judge Royce C. Lamberth, of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, halted federal spending for embryonic-stem-cell research, putting hundreds of research projects in limbo and plunging the N.I.H. back into a newly contentious national debate. 
At the N.I.H., the ability to deal with controversies, as a generation of Collins’s predecessors learned, matters at least as much as credentials; political combat comes with the job. Collins does not seem a likely combatant. His physical aspect—gray mustache and hair (cut in an early-Beatles mop top), thin-rimmed eyeglasses, and a distinct pallor—suggests a man best acquainted with a sunless existence in some laboratory. Yet, in a relatively colorless town, Collins has come to be known as something of a character, a model of geek cool. He likes big, noisy motorcycles, and, despite a mild manner, he is famously unself-conscious. At the unlikeliest moments, he will strap on a guitar and accompany himself in song, often a tune he has composed for the occasion.
Okay - I knew about his motorcycle, but not about his singing. But he has a quite an interesting background:
The man who holds the most powerful job in American science came from an unusual background. During the Depression, Collins’s parents, Fletcher and Margaret Collins, became part of a short-lived West Virginia project—sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and with financial help from Bernard Baruch—that attempted to create an ideal community for a group of impoverished miners near Morgantown.
Fletcher was the project’s music director, with the mission of helping the homesteaders recover their cultural heritage. He had a gift for coaxing from the mountain people the nearly forgotten old fiddle tunes, folk songs, and square-dance calls that had been, he wrote, “very much in their blood,” but “layered over by coal dust.”
After the war, the Collinses bought a ninety-four-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley, near Staunton, Virginia, determined to derive a livelihood from the land without modern agricultural machinery. They kept chickens, sheep, cows, and two workhorses, who pulled the plow and old wagon that carried the harvest from the hilly fields to the barn. The four Collins children, all boys, served as farmhands, collecting eggs, milking the cows, and shucking corn. When the alfalfa needed to be mowed and baled, amused neighbors would stop by with their tractors and help out. Once a week, the family drove into Staunton, where Margaret’s parents lived, and the boys had a bath; in the summertime, they bathed in the cow trough. After a few years, Fletcher took a position as drama instructor at the local women’s college, Mary Baldwin (“My cash crop,” he’d say), but the family was relatively poor. The younger boys wore their brothers’ hand-me-downs, and by the time the clothes reached Francis, the youngest, they were threadbare.
The Collinses’ household, known as Pennyroyal Farm, became the center of a vibrant arts community in Staunton. (It’s still thriving.) “Musicians would come and crash there for a couple of weeks because they’d run out of money,” Collins recalls. “They’d play great music, and then finally they’d move on.” Bob Dylan was among those who came to Pennyroyal. “Margaret and Fletcher were sort of hippies before there were hippies,” the singer Linda Williams recalls. “They were back-to-the-landers, and saw things the way people did in the seventies, only they’d done it in the thirties.”
For Francis, it was an enchanting, if arduous, childhood, part Boys’ Life and part Woodstock. He could set a barn door and knew how to predict weather by reading the sky over the distant Alleghenies. He did not see the inside of a schoolroom until sixth grade, because Margaret taught her boys at home. “There was no schedule,” Francis recalls. “The idea of Mother having a lesson plan would be just completely laughable. But she would get us excited about trying to learn about a topic that we didn’t know much about. And she would pose a question and basically charge you with it, using whatever resources you had—your mind, exploring nature, reading books—to try to figure out, well, what could you learn about that? And you’d keep at it until it just got tiresome. And then she’d always be ready for the next thing.”
Read the full article here


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