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NIH director Francis Collins awarded Templeton Prize for integrating faith and reason

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John Burger - published on 05/21/20

Templeton Prize for 2020 goes to man who led mapping of the human genome.

Ever since the Templeton Prize was established in 1972, it has honored individuals whose work has yielded new insights about religion especially through science. Winners have come from all major faiths and dozens of countries and have included Nobel Prize laureates, philosophers, theoretical physicists, and one canonized saint — Mother Teresa.

This year’s winner, announced today, is Francis S. Collins, director of the United States National Institutes of Health. Collins, a Christian, led the Human Genome Project to its successful completion in 2003 and throughout his career has advocated for the integration of faith and reason, according to the Templeton Foundation.

Collins was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and remains a member.

“In his scientific leadership, public speaking, and popular writing, including his bestselling 2006 book, The Language of God, Collins has demonstrated how religious faith can motivate and inspire rigorous scientific research,” said the Templeton Foundation, named for investor Sir John Templeton, who died in 2008.

“This book argues that belief in God can be an entirely rational choice,” Collins wrote in his book, “and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science.” He endeavors in the book to encourage religious communities to embrace the latest discoveries of genetics and the biomedical sciences as insights to enrich and enlarge their faith.

Collins, 70, was selected as the 2020 Templeton laureate late last year, but the announcement was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement prepared for the announcement, Collins said: “As I write this, almost my every waking moment is consumed by the effort to find treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19. The elegant complexity of human biology constantly creates in me a sense of awe. Yet I grieve at the suffering and death I see all around, and at times I confess I am assailed by doubts about how a loving God would permit such tragedies. But then I remember that the God who hung on the cross is intimately familiar with suffering. I learn and re-learn that God never promised freedom from suffering — but rather to be ‘our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (Psalm 46).”

Collins was born in Staunton, Virginia, to parents who sought to raise him in an idealized agrarian lifestyle, homeschooling him until he was 10 on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley. He received a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Yale. A biochemistry course, however, opened his eyes to the revolutionary possibilities emerging in the field, and led him to shift his career path and enroll in medical school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

In his youth, Collins wrestled with issues of religion, veering from agnosticism to atheism. But while a third-year medical student serving his residency, he was struck by the power of faith professed by his patients, many of whom faced imminent death. Unable to articulate his own belief, a neighbor, a Methodist minister, introduced him to the writings of C.S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar who himself had tested the tenets of faith through the lens of logic before embracing Christianity. Collins’s journey to Christian belief would evolve and strengthen over the next three decades.

After serving his residency and earning an M.D., Collins was named a Fellow in Human Genetics at Yale Medical School under the direction of Sherman Weissman, who still serves as the school’s Sterling Professor of Genetics. In Weissman’s lab, Collins developed the technique of “chromosome jumping,” allowing the cloning of an entire genetic strand by skipping over lengthy, perhaps unsearchable parts of the strand without going through the sequence gene by gene in order to read the entire strand.

After nine years at the University of Michigan where he became the school’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, he was appointed director of the National Center for Human Genome Research in 1993. There he was responsible for the Human Genome Project, an international consortium which remains the largest biological collaboration project in history. He resigned his position in 2008 but continued to lead an active laboratory focused on progeria and type 2 diabetes.

The Language of God examines how science does not conflict with the Bible and outlines how modern science and robust personal faith can reinforce each other. In response to overwhelming interest in the book and seeing the need to create a platform for further dialogue about science and religion, Collins and his wife, Diane Baker, founded the non-profit BioLogos Foundation in 2007, to foster discussion about harmony between science and biblical faith. The organization publishes articles and podcasts from scientists who are also Christians and promotes the view that an evolutionary creation position is correct and compatible with Christianity.

In 2009, President Barack H. Obama nominated Collins as director of the NIH. He was reappointed to the position by President Donald J. Trump in 2017.  He is the longest-serving director in the agency’s history.

The Tablet pointed out that during a 2018 meeting of an agency advisory panel, which was reported on by Science magazine, Collins said that human fetal tissue “will continue to be the mainstay” for research and can be done with an “ethical framework.” He also commented that alternative forms of research are “scientifically, highly justified.”

Said the Tablet:

The Science story said Collins told reporters: “There are certain areas where it’s hard to imagine that we would know what we know without the access to fetal tissue.” He said if something can be done with these tissues “that might save somebody’s life downstream, perhaps that’s a better choice than discarding them.” In a 2018 statement, Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, called Collins’ comments “deeply disturbing.”

Collins has written three other books aimed at a general audience: The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine and Belief: Readings on the Reasons for Faith, both in 2010, and The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, in 2011.

Among the many initiatives launched under Collins’s direction at NIH are “BRAIN: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies,” to develop tools to examine the brain’s cells and circuits; “Sound Health: Music and the Mind,” examining how music can have health and wellness applications; and “HEAL: Helping to End Addiction Long Term,” in response to the national opioid crisis.

In early 2020, Collins and his NIH colleagues shifted major parts of their attention and resources to accelerating treatments and a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Considering the comments that the U.S. bishops’ pro-life spokesman found “deeply disturbing” just two years ago, Collins might be willing to give a governmental imprimatur to a vaccine using fetal tissue or human embryonic stem cells.

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