Faith, Science, and Francis Collins

On June 26, 2000, the physician Francis Collins, then the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, stepped up to the podium in the East Room of the White House in front of President Bill Clinton, high-ranking U.S. officials, and foreign dignitaries. A team of more than a thousand scientists, led by Collins, had just assembled a first draft of the three billion letters in the human genome. Clinton called this a “stunning and humbling achievement,” rivalling Galileo’s. Collins told the audience, “We have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.” By 2003, he would bring the Human Genome Project, one of the largest scientific collaborations in history, to a successful completion, nearly half a billion dollars under budget and two years ahead of schedule.

Collins, an evangelical Christian, would later describe sequencing the human genome as “both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship.” But, as a young man, he considered himself an atheist. ​​Collins grew up on a farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. As Peter Boyer wrote in this magazine, in 2010, he and his three brothers milked cows and shucked corn; Collins was homeschooled until the sixth grade. His parents, who often hosted musicians on their property, were “sort of hippies before there were hippies,” according to the singer Linda Williams. They weren’t particularly religious; when Collins was sent to church to learn choir music, he recalls being told, “You should be respectful of what they’re doing, even if the stuff they’re talking about doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

While a medical student at the University of North Carolina, Collins saw religion comfort patients in physical and existential pain. When an elderly woman with an incurable heart condition asked him what he believed, he found himself at a loss. With time, the question began to feel overwhelming, urgent, and unavoidable. Even as Collins held on to the idea that science could untangle the mechanics of life, he read C. S. Lewis and consulted his first wife’s pastor. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that faith, more than science, could help illuminate morality and existence. One day, while hiking in the Cascades, he saw a waterfall frozen in three parts and took it as a sign of the Holy Trinity. In the decades that followed, he argued that science and religion could exist alongside each other. In 2006, he published “The Language of God,” a best-selling book that presents evidence that, in his view, justifies faith. In it, Collins argues that faith is rational, that it can help answer life’s deepest questions, and that the challenges of the twenty-first century require a harmony between science and religion, not just a ceasefire. He then founded BioLogos, an organization that supports the view that God created all things through the instrument of evolution.

In July, 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Collins to lead the National Institutes of Health, the largest supporter of biomedical-research in the world. Collins was by then a renowned geneticist who had helped to discover key genes behind cystic fibrosis, Type 2 diabetes, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and other conditions. Still, he faced high-profile opposition from within the scientific community. The prominent Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who has been an outspoken proponent of atheism, called Collins “an advocate of profoundly anti-scientific beliefs.” In an Op-Ed in the Times, the public intellectual Sam Harris, another prominent atheist, argued that “few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion,” and expressed concern that Collins’s views would undermine efforts to understand the human mind. “One can only hope that these convictions will not affect his judgment at the institutes of health,” Harris wrote. The U.S. Senate appeared not to share these concerns: it confirmed him with a unanimous vote.

In his twelve years as the director of the N.I.H.—the longest that anyone has held the position in half a century—Collins oversaw twenty-seven institutes, forty-six thousand employees and contractors, and a budget that grew to forty-two billion dollars. He became the only Presidentially appointed N.I.H. director to serve in more than one Administration, let alone three; he helped to secure budget increases of more than forty per cent, using them to fund a slew of new programs and initiatives related to, among other things, brain health, addiction research, and the development of COVID-19 therapies and vaccines.

In an era of historic polarization, Collins is the rare influential scientist who has managed to win and keep the trust of elected officials across the political spectrum. After Donald Trump’s election, in 2016, Collins was certain that he’d be replaced. But a group of Republican lawmakers sent Trump a letter calling Collins “the right person, at the right time, to continue to lead the world’s premier biomedical research agency.” Each of the signatories was deeply conservative: they all supported gun rights, abortion restrictions, and the repeal of Obamacare. When Joe Biden was elected, in 2020, Collins again prepared to step down. But the nation was in the throes of a deadly and divisive pandemic, and, when Biden asked him to stay, he agreed.

Collins, who is seventy-one, finally handed in his resignation late last year. He returned to his own laboratory research, and, in February, accepted an interim position as the acting science adviser to President Biden. In my conversations with him, I sensed that his personal mission is broader than either of these two roles. “If we are going to build a future for ourselves, it has to be based upon a shared agreement that there are standards for knowledge,” he told me. “You can be wrong about things, in which case knowledge needs to evolve. But there is such a thing as knowledge.”

During the pandemic, Collins has struggled with a painful paradox: science is more effective and necessary than ever, and also less trusted. Researchers revealed how a novel pathogen spreads, evolves, and kills; they used its genome to create lifesaving vaccines in less than a year. At the same time, politicians and media figures, especially on the right, have undermined pandemic recommendations, maligned public-health leaders, and sown doubt about vaccines. Tucker Carlson, the host of one of the most-watched cable-news shows in America, recently told his viewers that there had been a “complete failure of public-health leadership.” He went on, “These people don’t take it upon themselves to know the data and to say it truthfully, so instead they have inculcated this culture of severe fear.” Tens of millions of people, disproportionately in rural and conservative communities, have chosen not to get immunized against a virus that has killed almost a million Americans. In surveys, only around a third of respondents say that they have high levels of trust in the N.I.H. and the Food and Drug Administration; eight in ten say that Republicans and Democrats disagree on basic facts. “When the history is written of the worst pandemic in a century, the scientific response will be seen as a shining light in the midst of a dark time,” Collins told me. “But science is caught up in a much larger disillusionment with the traditional foundations of how we decide what’s true.”

Collins rose to prominence as a scientist in a different era, when Christian conservatives were denouncing scientists for research using embryonic stem cells. He worked on both sides of the cultural divide, and, during his tenure, he helped to enable many of our recent scientific successes. But the divide—and the task of bridging it that he considers his duty now—is only getting bigger.

In May, 2021, after helping to lead the federal pandemic response for more than a year, during which he woke up most mornings at four-thirty, Collins escaped for a weekend to a rented barn in Loudoun County, Virginia. He brought his guitar and a Bible that he has had for decades; horses and goats kept him company. Collins gazed out at the blue sky and rolling hills. He wrote, prayed, and ultimately decided to leave his post as the director of the N.I.H. Collins told me that he prays not to ask God to change his circumstances, but to ask God what he himself should do.

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His choice turned on three considerations. The first was political: if he couldn’t commit to staying on through Biden’s term, it was only fair to give the President a chance to nominate and confirm a new director before the midterm elections. The second was institutional—Collins believes that organizations benefit from new leadership and fresh ideas. And the third was a social obligation: he wanted to help repair the public’s fraying confidence in science. “I looked in the mirror and thought, If I have any credibility as a scientist, a Christian, a nonpolitical person, I want to spend it trying to get us to a better place,” he said.

After Collins stepped down, I travelled to the sprawling N.I.H. campus in Bethesda, Maryland, to meet with him. It was a frigid day in January, and Collins arrived a few minutes late, having walked across campus after meeting with Anthony Fauci, another leading pandemic figure who, like Collins, has faced vicious attacks on the Internet and in the media. Collins, who stands well over six feet, wore scientist chic: dark blazer, gray jeans, black mask, and Chelsea boots. We met not in Building 1, the home of the N.I.H. director, but in Building 50, where Collins’s genetics lab is situated. He welcomed me to his small, spartan, and mostly empty new office: bookshelves without books, walls without diplomas, a solitary mahogany desk.