I don't know who's behind President Obama's appointment of Dr. Francis S. Collins as head of the National Institutes of Health. Maybe it was the influence on the president of Nobel Laureate in Medicine and former director himself of the N.I.H. Harold Varmus, who runs Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and is the co-chairman of the Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. And maybe it was the counsel of Ezekiel Emanuel who had been chairman of the Department of Bioethics at N.I.H. until he came to the White House as Obama's prime intermediary on health care. (By the way, Zeke was an intern at TNR many years ago. An article about him appeared in the magazine several weeks ago.) Of course, the sage advice that the president has taken might have come from both of these men.
In any case, as you could tell from the news dispatch by Gardiner Harris in Thursday's New York Times, not everybody is pleased by Collins' designation. And some praise grudgingly given is faint praise, indeed. Now, I'm in no position to judge the brilliance of a medical scientist... or any scientist, for that matter. But I know with whom I can check, and there are many. So here is the consensus:
Collins is a magnificent scientist, methodical, to be sure, but uncannily insightful, even intuitive in experimental mapping. His brilliance dazzles other brilliant scientists.
This was proven when, as Harris wrote, Collins and "a team at the University of Michigan ... discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis."
But Harris exaggerates when he suggests that the discovery did not fulfill its promise and prospects. While the discovery did not "lead to a quick cure"--what discovery really does?--there are several transformational drugs that descend from the Ann Arbor scientific breakthrough and these drugs are helping patients, patients who are mostly children, every day.
As it happens, one doctor to whom I spoke (he is a professor at the Harvard Medical School and vice president for research at one of its teaching hospitals) compared the Collins group's identification of the errant gene that causes cystic fibrosis to the discovery of one disabled bulb in the entire American electric web. No mean piece of work.
So what's wrong with Collins?
He is a practicing and believing Christian. It's odd--isn't it?--that this fact should make a scientific designee unfit or unsuited for a job. Soon we will hear the same about judicial nominees. The establishment mounted a sustained campaign in the Senate (and outside) against President Wilson's nomination of Louis D. Brandies to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the candidate was Jewish, although some of his critics tended to be euphemistic rather than direct about their objections. Not so those who are against Collins.
The president must have anticipated this reaction. It is reassuring that he did not crumble in advance.