Indeed, people wondered how he'd come down on many issues, given his religious bent, but he assured us that this job was separate from his religion (he was quoted in the New York Times at the time of his nomination as saying, “I have made it clear that I have no religious agenda for the N.I.H.,” he said, “and I think the vast majority of scientists have been reassured by that and have moved on"). And indeed, his friends all assured us when he was appointed that he wouldn't let his religion guide his decisions about science.
Oh, really? As the story in the New Yorker puts it, the way he made his decision about stem-cell research was to reconcile his views on stem cells with his Christian morality. He ultimately decided he was in favor of embryonic stem cell research, but not before he wrestled with the decision from his religious point of view.
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.
Although his feelings about embryonic stem-cells are indeed pro-research, and satisfied scientists, particularly those doing stem cell research -- he was quoted as being 'stunned' by the legal decision two weeks ago to halt stem cell research -- it can't be denied that he filtered his thinking through his religious beliefs. Just as those who were not in favor of his appointment worried that he would do -- and those who supported him assured us he wouldn't. If he makes the 'right' decision based on his religious views, in the minds of scientists who want to be free to do whatever they want to do, is that now okay?
We all have a moral filter of some sort, and make decisions based on what we think is right and wrong, but one would hope that the head of the organization that guides the direction of research into fundamental life and death matters would have a more nuanced, less superstition-driven basis for those decisions. Indeed, in his official position, with his hands on so much of the people's money, his decisions should be driven by what would have the greatest impact on the health of the most people. We trust him when he says that he doesn't believe he has a religious agenda for the NIH, but when his basis for decisions is his evangelical faith, what else can you call it?
And, it must be said that our own primary concern when he was selected to head the NIH had more to do with his genetic and technology fundamentalism than his religion -- a concern that the New Yorker story doesn't acknowledge, though surely we weren't the only scientists who felt this way. Dr Collins is a technophile's technophile, and there are many reasons to challenge the unrestrained investment in hypertechnologies as the main mission of our national heath institute.