This week, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, announced that he would retire at the end of the year. An evangelical Christian who previously worked as the head of the Human Genome Project, Collins’ 2009 appointment still drew scorn. From a 2010 profile in the New Yorker:
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.”
Nevertheless, Collins served under three presidential administrations. During the pandemic, Collins has spoken out a number of times in his efforts to dispel misconceptions about the virus and vaccine.
Prior to his term at the NIH, Collins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also wrote the best-selling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which won a CT Book Award.
Elaine Howard Ecklund joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss Collins’s legacy in the scientific and Christian communities.
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The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #283
Your books are very good especially about questions about what religious people, particularly conservative Christians think about science and what scientists think about religion including conservative evangelicals like Francis Collins. How often did Francis Collins's name come up in your research? Did it come up more among Christians interested in science or among scientists interested in talking about religious folks?
Elaine Ecklund: Francis Collins is a prominent figure in the scientific community. He's had many years as we know of the NIH, which is the National Institutes of Health, the largest biomedical research agency in the world. But before that, he was head of the Human Genome Project and had a major part in mapping the human genome.
He is a prominent scientist, not even just in the US but globally, but I didn't set out to ask people what they thought about Francis Collins. My broader research initially was about what scientists in the US in different disciplines think about religion, ethics, and values and how they thought religion conflicted or didn't with what they understand of science.
I was surprised when scientists themselves mentioned such prominent, scientific figures like Collins, often both scientists who were not themselves non-religious and scientists who were religious and specifically scientists who are committed Christians. They mentioned Francis a lot and the other scientist that they mentioned a lot is Richard Dawkins, who is the very well-known former Oxford university professor who is the author of The God Delusion.
When they talked about scientists did the religious people have a concept of folks like Francis Collins operating in the making of major breakthroughs like the human genome project, or some of the work that he had done on Cystic Fibrosis and genes and all that kind of thing. Was he prominent in Christians talking about science?
Elaine Ecklund: I wish he was more so. I did this study of scientists and what they think about religion. They knew all kinds of scientists including other famous scientists and they had a lot to say about Francis in particular and what he thinks in terms of his faith.
That led me to another interesting research question, which is, what do religious people think about science and specifically, what do Christians think about science and scientists? My colleague, Christopher Scheitle, and I set out to understand that set of questions and we did a little survey experiment. We introduced information about Francis Collins who's a very committed Christian and we introduced information to our respondents about Richard Dawkins, who is a very committed and outspoken atheist, and champion of what some called the new atheist. We found that actually, most people didn't know of either Francis Collins or Richard Dawkins. We were very surprised. So I thought there are people in the general public who don't know about Richard Dawkins or Francis Collins.
But another layer of findings was that when they did get information about these two and their backgrounds and particularly their views on religion, the general public thought that Dawkins was much more typical than Collins. So they thought Dawkins is what they see as a typical scientist, a very committed outspoken atheist, and Collins is fairly atypical and further yet when they were introduced with information about Collins, they then were a bit less likely to see a conflict between religions and science. So most people don't know about these famous scientists, most people who when they do hear about them, think Dawkins is more typical, but Collins does have some power in helping people see less of a conflict between science and religion.
Ted Olsen: Learning about Dawkins doesn't change people's perception of the relationship between science and religion and that's largely because people maybe have a slightly negative view of the religion and science relationship but talking about Collins does say I guess that there is more collaboration possible with religion and science. Is that right?
Elaine Ecklund: Exactly. This is something that has a lot of public input, potentially, especially both in the science and the faith community. The public trust in science is really important and we see that with the vaccine and some of my research has shown that it's not so much that the public doesn't trust science it's that they don't trust scientists as a people group. They think that they might not share the same values that the general public does and especially religious people and particularly evangelical Christians are especially hesitant about trust and scientists.
My colleagues and I started thinking, how could you start to solve that? Maybe based on these Collins findings, if there are scientists we share an identity with, where we're both Christians and I'm a scientist and you're not, maybe because we share that Christian identity, you will be likely to trust what I have to say scientifically.
So I started thinking about the possibility of using these social science findings to do some more intervention work within particular kinds of faith communities.
When someone becomes a star or a celebrity scientist, does that necessarily reflect on how mainstream they are within the scientific community themselves?
Elaine Ecklund: With relationship to Collins in my first study of scientists, attitudes towards religion, when Collins was brought up without me even priming people or asking them directly about him, he was brought up mostly in a neutral or positive light.
He's done amazing scientific work, but he also has this Christian personal private thing on the side. So the sort of independence model of seeing the science and faith relationship. I may think he's kind of kooky personally, but I'm fine with his scientific work, I respect him. Or people thought that Collins was able to relate to a piece of the general public, the religious general public that other scientists were not and they were kind of pleased by that so were grateful for someone out there like Collins who relates to them when they could not. When Richard Dawkins was brought up, his scientific work was also very much respected by other scientists as far as I could tell but some scientists, even atheist scientists themselves wondered about Dawkins' relationship to the public and especially if it potentially was harming the public's relationship to the scientific community,
Because of his faith?
Elaine Ecklund: Because Dawkins is so outspoken in his atheism, giving scientists a bad name, thinking that all atheist scientists are out to eat young Christians for lunch, that they are totally against religion and religious people. That was partly why I wrote the book with David Johnson, The Varieties of Atheism in Science because I think the stereotypes the public has of atheist scientists are not true either according to our research.
Going back to that first research you did on the perceptions of religious folks by scientists, you found that in biology and somewhat in physics, there is some religious discrimination in the biology world of the sciences where people say that isn’t just imagined by religious people. But then that also seems to be happening in some of the academies?
Elaine Ecklund: Chris Shuttle and I do have a couple of journal articles where we're talking about forms of religious discrimination or perceived religious discrimination in the academy. There are different kinds of professions in society and some professions might preference religious people.
We find that in some other research, but academic science, in particular, doesn't appear to preference religious people and people who are religious, particularly in Muslims and evangelical Christians who are in the US science community, do perceive that they are sometimes experience othering or discrimination when compared to more secular scientists or atheist scientists.
Connecting your research earlier, where you introduced information about Francis Collins to religious folks and said, “what are your views now?” And they kind of moved along that spectrum to say, maybe these things are not in as much conflict, do you think the attention on Francis Collins has had over the years as head of NIH has moved the dial in terms of scientists' perceptions of evangelicals in especially biological sciences?
Elaine Ecklund: I do think in the science community he's moved the dial that people that I have interviewed for my research now say, at least those who know of him say, it seems possible to be a committed Christian, a scientist even if they think those things should be kept strictly separate. You should never talk about your faith in the workplace. I think it's another question to ask about religious people and particularly evangelical Christians who seem to have entrenched stereotypes of scientists and who they are and are so convinced that they make such a strict boundary; some types of Christians between scientists and themselves, and just can't even conceive that scientists could also be persons of faith. I know Francis Collins himself has tried so much to convince people otherwise, to convince kids who are Christians to go into science, to convince people in churches that they should have talks about science. He started this amazing organization; Biologos, which is now run by Deb Haarsma.
The whole purpose of that organization is to show the Christian Church that science is completely compatible with the Christian faith. There's so much that he's done personally, but I think the social science research would show that everyday people probably are going to be most influenced by the scientists in their congregations.
Francis is kind of out there. He can be seen as a kind of atypical compare because he's so elite and has done so much but everyday people need to know someone who's in their relational circle, who's a scientist. That's where the rub is and so maybe Francis makes other scientists who are in congregations more courageous, but it's the scientists in the pews, next to people who are non-scientists who need to learn how to talk more about their work and the compatibility between their faith and their scientific work.
When do you first remember Francis Collins coming on your radar? In what ways do you remember that happening? Was that from his Christian bent or do you remember him because of his work in the scientific?
Elaine Ecklund: That's hard to tell because I've been studying the interface between the scientific and religious communities for about 15 years and it's hard for me to remember when I didn't know about Francis Collins. I also picked up his book, The Language of God when it first came out and read it right through because I was already starting to study the scientific community and their views on faith and ethics and values so he was very much a part of that as well.
What do you remember when you read that book? What stood out to you?
Elaine Ecklund: Francis is very good at telling a compelling story. Ted is right, that he has a kind of shocking humility about him and I think that comes through in the book. He does tell the story about his journey towards faith through a patient who was dying and just the impact that the patient he was caring for had on his consideration of faith. There was a kind of winsome humility about that that stuck out for me and the book. I didn't come to that book because I have personal struggles with what I think about evolution. I've never really struggled with whether or not evolution is the best way to explain the development of life on earth and don't find it incompatible for me personally, with the Christian faith. But his story and his ability to connect with others, it's clear that he is comfortable in his humanness and doesn't need to be viewed as above others or better than others.
I think that that came out in the book and connected to me in a very personal way. He has a kind of genuineness about him that I'd like to model in my own life. So I think that's kind of what came through to me in the book.
Looking at Collins’ work around evolution, what type of impact has that had on how he has been viewed? Maybe you can start by sharing what his convictions about evolution are and what he's done in that work and then give us a better sense of the public reception, both from Christians and from his fellow scientists.
Ted Olsen: Yeah, a magazine covered Francis Collins’ resignation as director of the National Institutes of Health, and part of the article mentioned that Collins professes faith in Jesus Christ but also in evolution as God's means of creating the world and it talked about his views of Genesis as lyrical, allegorical and ahistorical.
What is his legacy as a guy eager to promote evolution especially to evangelicals?
Elaine Ecklund: When he started Biologos, this was a major issue in Christian circles, there were a lot of books about evolution written by Christian thinkers during that time. This was when we were really in the whole debate about intelligent design and evolution, the 2005 school board decisions, and things like that. This was a major piece of the culture wars at that time. So I think Francis coming out in the way that he did and speaking openly about his Christian faith and relationship to his work as a scientist and his perspective on evolution, that evolution is compatible with his Christian faith, drew both praise and ire from both the Christian community and the scientific community.
So there are ways in which particular folks in the scientific community have placed a lot of stake in seeing Christians as being against evolution, against scientific work. But then there also were folks in the Christian community who met him with suspicion and said, is he a real Christian? I'm not embedded in the kind of science circles that of course Collins is embedded in but I have surveyed over 40,000 scientists globally.
So, I've maybe talked to more scientists than many scientists themselves have through my work as a social scientist and I have never heard anyone say anything negative about Collins’ scientific work, so I do think that he is the kind of scientific elite that doesn't draw much criticism for his scientific work.
I have heard folks say negative things about his faith in both scientific and Christian circles.
Talking a little more about Francis Collins’ story, did he succeed in part because he was able to establish some creds and that set him apart from some of the hot button issues that people identify with among other evangelicals? For instance, he has been known for his work with Biologos. He was also outspoken about his Christian faith but at the same time, he pushed for a loosening of the rules on stem cell research or on fetal tissue research which seems like it may have put some folks at ease and may have distanced himself from some.
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah, he is an interesting mix of what one could think of is having liberal and conservative political views in some ways. There is a sense where he is so atypical that one has to stand up and take notice. I also know that from interviewing many scientists. that he has been a real champion for increasing the diversity of people who enter science and outspoken that he wouldn't be on any normal panels with just men. People sadly do not expect Christian leaders to be a champion for the rights and the full humanness of people who are outside of their Christian faith and that's very sad because I think our faith compels us to be a champion for all.
So, I was always so happy when scientists said that when I wasn't even asking them what Collins thinks about issues of diversity. I talked with several African-American scientists who had known Collins and these black scientists were one in particular who talked about Collins's pain of racial injustice within the science community. I'm certain he's not perfect, but in the era in which he was coming up, I think he was trying to push boundaries in ways that are distinctively Christian. If you've met him personally, the way he interacts with people is kind of shocking. He just immediately puts the person speaking to him at ease. I don't mean to imply that being a Christian, it doesn't matter what we think about moral issues, but he has a kind of broad set of moral issues that he's concerned about that makes him distinctive.
Ted Olsen: For sure and just for some of our listeners to understand, when he came in there was a study about NIH that said that black scientists were 13 percentage points less likely than whites to get first-tier awards for grants.
Elaine Ecklund: Yeah. The early investigator awards.
Ted Olsen: Yeah, and he just poured millions of dollars into a mentoring program, into an undergraduate program for minorities and a science journal says that the annual number of black investigators, more than doubled from 2013 to 2018 to 113 and he says we've got a lot further to go, but people are saying there's actual movement here and Collins helped to push it. As you mentioned, he also has said he will not be on any panel that has only men which is remarkable. He says it's not just a nice thing to do, we have to have more diversity in sciences because that's how science progresses with greater productivity and greater creativity.
We had a colleague here who has a son who's interested in going into the hard sciences and he had read Collins' book and he just sent Collins a letter saying, “I read this book. I was inspired by it. I want to be a scientist when I graduate.” He got like a personal letter from Collins, a very busy guy who works at the NIH, very busy guy. You just hear this from person after person that he takes the time for individuals. Forget the jumps he has made with the human genome and attacking cancer cell genes and all these things.
How does he have the time to take the time for people while he's doing all of these things? Any insight you have on that at all?
Elaine Ecklund: I don't know him at that level. I've talked to him several times and I joined what must be a large group of people I'm to infer from what you said, who've received a personally written letter from Francis. I do think that his ethic leads him to prioritize personal relationships. I'm imagining he also has a very capable staff and knows how to delegate. He's mentioned just adoring his staff and you get the sense that he treats the people who work with him very well and honors them. He prioritizes these kinds of personal communications and connections over other things.
If you're only about making your name for yourself in scientific work, obviously you might think it's important that others go into science, but that one kid who's interested in science is not the way you're going to make a name for yourself by writing that person a letter and so I can't help but think part of it is because of his particular ethic of regarding others as highly as himself frankly.
What type of controversies or blind spots you have seen in Collins’ career and how has he handled those?
Elaine Ecklund: It's hard for me to know. I don't know that I have followed his career well. I do think I too am aware of particular kinds of Christian outlets wondering whether Collins had done the right kind of moral reflection on human embryonic stem cell research.
But then again, I've also been in seminars with him and heard him speak openly and say that Christian reflection and theological reflection on the future of human repair and genetic technologies and human embryonic stem cell research is so needed and a place where the church can make a real distinctive contribution.
So, I don't think, I know I've heard him say these things publicly, so he does seem to know that just because we could create something scientifically does not mean that we should use it or advance it or push it. He understands that our moral reflection very rarely has caught up to what we're capable of doing with the kinds of scientific technologies that we have available.
I've heard him make that point publicly several times, but I think that certain groups of Christians critiqued Collins for not being more outspoken against certain kinds of scientific technologies.
Talking about the pandemic, which has made a number of folks who work in science and public health rather polemic, and Collins has been very much out in front speaking in many ways toward Christians in particular about the truth about the virus, the vaccine, he spoke through some platforms that were here at CT. Did you observe at all what type of message he was pushing and the extent to which it was being received by Christians?
Elaine Ecklund: I think Collins has been saddened that white evangelical Christians have been one of the groups that have been most resistant in the US to getting vaccinated and so I think in some ways that that has saddened him, and he has been part of some efforts that I know of to try to reach out to Christians in particular.
That saddened me as well. I've been part of efforts to reach out to two Christian groups and try to encourage them to get vaccinated. Collins has openly expressed this. We do have a history of the scientific community and the US government being involved in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and things like that. So, there is a sense where certain types of communities, particularly black communities, and to some extent, Hispanic communities seem to have less trust in science and scientists, but Christians in those communities are not leading the way in resistance to vaccination. So, I think Collins has tried hard to get into Christian communities or speak to them when he can.
Morgan Lee: Yeah. I just know, Fauci has been someone else who's been at the forefront of these conversations as well and I didn't know, perhaps there had been any difference in the reception that you've seen someone like Fauci get compared to someone like Collins specifically within the Christian community.
Elaine Ecklund: One effort I know of Collins tried to make videos and be part of efforts to reach the Christian community in particular. Fauci at least, as far as I know, has not said that he's a Christian or anything as far as I know maybe you all know something different than I do.
He hasn't talked from that perspective. So, I do think given what I know that Collins would have perhaps a better chance of reaching the Christian community than someone like Fauci would. I keep wondering though if research would point to that it's the everyday scientist, the kind of scientists that a person knows in the congregation that needs to be the one to speak up, the scientists you have a relationship with or share a very intimate connection with, rather than the scientist that is kind of the elite out there. There's a kind of mistrust of elites right now in our society broadly and I wonder, especially in scientific leads if part of the response to the vaccine has something to do with that. It's very hard to tell this for sure, through scientific social scientific research, but I keep wondering that.
Ted Olsen: What has Francis Collins done as the head of the NIH? Everyone seems to talk about him being a really big idea guy, whether you're talking about the cancer moonshot under Biden, or you're talking about the human genome project before it went to the NIH or the brain research work that he's done that is pretty significant in terms of tools to figure out how neural circuits work, he's done a lot of work at NIH across a lot of different sciences.
A lot of big scientific projects are built on smaller-scale research. Is there a lesson from Collins, especially when you're talking about public funding when you're talking about what the NIH should do, how the government can accelerate, empower, or fund sciences? Is there some sort of indication that the role of the NIH and the role of government funding of science has changed in the last decade under Collins?
Elaine Ecklund: I don't know that I would know for what I do, whether or not historically how the role of government funding has changed, but they're certain is outside involvement and we're like a sort of entrepreneurial science, which I think you've got like the Elon Musk types and stuff like that, that's a whole other separate conversation but corporate interests in science, science, and funding, but for the point of view of some in the scientific community there is a sense that there's not enough emphasis on small bench science and startup grants and things like that, that it's kind of go big or go home.
So, the big projects are the ones that maybe people are more likely to fund and how do we think about basic research that is not as applicable to very practical things that are going on, not as applicable to medicine, the national institutes of health have a very specific mission.
So I don't think that's something we can critique Collins work because that's the type of thing that he does is health-based research so it necessarily has to have some kind of practical application, but there is perhaps a kind of devaluing in some of these government agencies of the type of basic research that leads to these big breakthroughs that have an impact on everyday people's health outcomes. That's something that many scientists do say I know for my research.
Ted Olsen: The reason that came to mind was just thinking about the big dramatic programs contrasting with what we were mentioning before about humility.
I've never worked with Collins my way but just reading everyone saying he is humble, he treats his people well. I just kept being struck by how he did a lot of big things but he also was focused on the people. Especially those who were not in the room and also the people who were in the room, making sure that they're taken care of. So I thought that was something to emulate at least.
Elaine Ecklund: I hear what you're saying. The structure of big science is stacked against cultivating the virtue of humility. So there is a sense where succeeding in science can be about making a name for oneself but the best and biggest science always involves teams.
It's never really just one PI It's always the tons of people who work with that principal investigator. So I can't help but think that's where Collins was perhaps distinctively Christian in his terms, his way of understanding his faith, that he seemed to understand how to connect with others in a way that also elevated them.
Again, I say that not knowing everyone Collins has worked within any kind of deep way, but when I interviewed people who have worked with him, I don't think they would need to want to try to impress me with that or anyway. The interviews were confidential, that did seem to come out that that was just the kind of ethics of care that he has.
As we close this conversation, you know, science is not the only industry or environment out there where Christians are challenged to build the trust of their colleagues and others in that world. What would you like people who do work in those spaces to take away either from your research or from the example of Collins about what they can do to build trust with folks?
Elaine Ecklund: If you're a Christian working in an environment with people who don't share your faith, to have a real ethical influence, you have to believe in the potential goodness of the institution and of the people who work in that environment. I've done some other work with Denise Daniels about faith in the workplace broadly and in different kinds of occupations and there is the sense where you can't just think of yourself as calm kind of subversive agent. You have to think there's already good going on in the institution. There are already people who could be aligned partners in a more ethical and just workplace. So as Christians we need to look for those partners rather than assuming that there are people who are always against us that there's nothing good going on until we get there. There's a redemptive mindset that one needs to have.
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