NIH Director Ruffles Feathers Again With New Religion Book

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins is again riling some scientists by publicly sharing his religious beliefs—this time by publishing a new book about faith. A debate has broken out in the blogosphere about whether Collins is misusing his position with a collection of essays on religion that he compiled.

When Collins took the helm of NIH last summer, many assumed he would curtail such activities. For example, he resigned from a foundation he started to explore religion and science. It took some people by surprise when a press release appeared on Tuesday from Harper Collins announcing Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, which addresses the question "Is there a God?" It follows a 2006 book in which Collins described how he became an evangelical Christian.

Anticreationist blogger Jerry Coyne writes that while Collins may have "the legal right" to publish the book, "it's not judicious to argue publicly, as the most important scientist in the US, that there is scientific evidence for God." He suggests Collins should step down. Blogger PZ Myers is also concerned, writing: "I note that one of the ways the book is being promoted is by touting the credentials of its editor as 'the Director of the National Institutes of Health.' "

Not all commenters on the two blogs agree. Milton C. suggests: "Although Collins making public statements about his faith isn't the best professional move, he's not explicitly making those beliefs the position of the NIH, either. ... Until he puts out a press release on NIH letterhead proclaiming that science proves the existence of God, tis[sic] is all much ado about not liking Francis Collins."

Kathy Hudson, Collins's chief of staff, says her boss has done nothing improper. She points out that, like his new book on personalized medicine, Belief was written before Collins became NIH director. "These were things he did as a private citizen when he was off the government payroll, and now they're being published," she says. While ethics rules allow him to receive royalties, he cannot promote either book because of concerns that he would be using his position to increase its financial value, she says. But Collins is allowed to answer questions about his beliefs if reporters ask, said Hudson and NIH spokeperson John Burklow. Collins touched on his faith in a newspaper interview just last week.