On a blog, anthropologist Kenneth M. Weiss complained recently that as Human Genome Project director, Collins "directly or indirectly intimidated other NIH agencies to get into the genome game … That did, and still does, co-opt funds that could be used for other things instead." The concern of some scientists, in other words, has nothing to do with religion. It's that his view of legitimate science doesn't extend to them.No, the concerns are two. First, it is in the nature of bureaucrats to go for what they think will protect their portfolios, and that often if not usually means following the latest fads and fashions. It is not that genetics and genomics are unimportant, but that they had momentum and that attracts 'me-too' ers. It is certainly debatable whether committing so much money and energy to genetics was the best way that funds could or should have been spent to the extent they were.
Secondly, it's a problem when, if you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail. These days everything looks like a gene. As regular readers of this blog know, our view has been that not everything is genetic, and yet genetics has had a growing or even predatory corner on research funds in the last few decades, largely due to Collins' prowess at convincing Congress of the importance of genes in explaining, preventing, and curing disease. That prowess will serve him well at the NIH, but his faith in genes, perhaps more disturbing than his faith in a personal god, is less likely to serve the rest of us as well.
We know, for example, that the health disparities in this country, not to mention the world, have almost zero to do with genetic susceptibility (except that which all humans share), and more to do with life styles, nutrition, infectious disease prevention etc. Most of the common diseases which our flesh is heir to can be prevented or delayed by lifestyle changes. If that were done, which should (we think) be Priority One at NIH, then the residuum of those diseases would be the cases that really are genetic.
Lifestyle changes are hard to mandate and research on relevant social behavior has failed us. Whether it's worth investing in that kind of research is a separate, debatable, question. Short of outlawing McDonald's and television, Americans probably would rather be fat and out of shape. Many of our fellow citizens still smoke, after all.
We have many reservations about the way things are being done in genetics and genomics these days, relative to the problems we know are 'out there', which are separate from the relative priority issue. We think very large amounts of funds are being spent to maintain the status quo even when we know it is not working. That's another way that systems, of all sorts, resist change. It is not a view against genetics, but one that would see genetics done in a better way, and one more relevant to the state purpose of health-research funds.
If Dr Collins takes a broader view of health rather than health research, as NIH Director, he may use his administrative skills to make excellent contributions to our country's and the world's well-being. But if his presence just encourages every university seeking grants and grant overhead, and so on, to continue to go for the gene, even if Dr Collins doesn't explicitly push them to do that, then his stint may be less sanguine. Time will tell.