Francis Collins's final friend

Dr. Francis Collins finds himself in the middle of an ethics-, science-, politics-, money- and religion-filled debate instead of in the chemistry lab lately. Despite Christopher Hitchens's recent shout-out, you have to wonder if the embryonic stem-cell research debate has left him fairly friendless.

The geneticist faced some opposition from his fellow scientists when he was chosen last summer to lead the National Institutes of Health. Then he faced further opposition when he announced approval for human embryonic stem cell lines for federally funded research. Now he opposes a federal court's decision, which issued an injunction last month stopping federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.

This divisive appointee makes an interesting profile for The New Yorker, who considers the past, present and future for the geneticist who led the effort to sequence the human genome. The story doesn't fall into the assumption trap we've complained about before: "He's an evangelical, but he's still smart"! You have to get past the deck: What is a "fervent Christian"? (Remember our discussion of devout Christians)

But there are a lot of good things to say about Peter J. Boyer's piece: The piece is pretty fair, allows for some nuances and tension, explains just how exactly we got here. The reporting is solid, and the storytelling is compelling where he weaves in Collins's personal life with science, politics, and faith.

The introduction shows Collins's many accomplishments and shows why this brilliant scientist would come under scrutiny: his faith.

The objection to Collins was his faith--or, at least, the ardency of it. Collins is a believing Christian, which places him in the minority among his peers in the National Academy of Science. (Of its members, according to a study, only seven per cent believe in God.)

The next section gives us a slice of what it's like to manage the NIH's funding, showing how politically divisive the choices can become. The reporter weaves his farming background into the story of how he went from unbelief to converting to Christianity. We get a good sense of how his peers reacted when he was chosen.

Last summer, some of the world's preeminent scientists were in Cambridge, England, celebrating the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species," when word arrived from Washington that Obama had chosen Collins to run the N.I.H. "A lot of those New Atheists were in attendance, and they were incredibly alarmed," Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate, who was Bill Clinton's director of the N.I.H., says. Varmus, who now runs the National Cancer Institute, is an old friend of Collins's, and was his boss during the Human Genome Project. "I tried to calm everybody down," he says. "I said, Francis is a terrific scientist, and very well organized and a great spokesperson for the N.I.H., has terrific connections in Congress, and is a delightful person to work with." It was clear that Collins's handling of stem-cell policy would be the critical test of his ability to separate faith from secular duty.

On that last sentence, how could handling the policy become a test? How does handling stem cell funding demand separating faith from secular duty? Does Collins think the two are separate or does one inform the other in any way?

Boyer appropriately provides some basic details for why embryonic stem-cell research has become so divisive.

The principal ethical issue posed by the research--the fact that the embryo must be destroyed in the process--was a cause of real concern even to the man who pioneered the process, Dr. James Thomson, of the University of Wisconsin. "If human-embryonic-stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough," he said in 2007.

The story then offers some of the historical context for how Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush handled the federal guidelines. Boyer also explains how scientists furthered stem cell research that did not involve the destruction of embryos, showing why some did and didn't work.

A glaring question the writer finally addresses is how Collins reconciles his faith with the destruction of human embryos.

Before Collins had a direct say in the Administration's decision on stem cells, he was personally torn by the ethical questions posed by stem-cell research. He has long opposed the creation of embryos for the purpose of research. He sees a human embryo as a potential life, though he thinks that it is not possible scientifically to settle precisely when life begins. But Collins also feels it is morally wasteful not to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of embryos created for in-vitro fertilization that ultimately are disposed of anyway. These embryos are doomed, but they can help aid disease research.

What's unclear here is how much faith and/or science guides Collins's reasoning. A few quotes here and there would have been helpful to fully understanding Collins's logic for those who may disagree with him.

Next, Boyer explains the latest court case which blocked the federal funding.

Collins said that he was stunned by Judge Lamberth's decision, as were most people in the research community. Perhaps they should not have been. The ruling didn't arrive out of the blue. Although the battle over embryonic stem cells had receded from public contention, the issue had not gone away. Earlier this summer, a lawsuit against the Administration filed by a group of plaintiffs (including two researchers specializing in adult stem research), claiming that the new Obama rules harmed their work by increasing the competition for federal research dollars, was reinstated by a federal appeals court.

As Mollie covered earlier, the suit was brought by some Christian groups. She argued that the reporters could have spoken with people who don't believe the NIH guidelines violate federal law. This time, why not glean some comment from the plaintiffs and show the interesting debate between Christians?

If the story could have gone further, I wonder how has Collins's reasoning has impacted his standing among other scientists and Christians. In other words, it seems like he's sort of in a lose-lose situation. Some of his fellow scientists discredit him because of his faith; Some of his fellow Christians discredit him for his pro-embryonic-stem-cell research stance. So is Christopher Hitchens his only friend left?

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