Francis Collins

Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute

"It’s pretty hard to say no to something like leading the Human Genome Project," says Francis Collins. When Collins, a physician and genetics researcher, was asked to take over what he calls "the most historic thing that science has ever done in biology," he was a little nervous. Ten years later, he is still, happily, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

"The genome is a wonderful book of medicine," Collins says. By decoding the human genome, and the genomes of other organisms, we’ll gain insight into how genes work, and which processes nature has preserved over time. That will be key to creating new treatments for genetic diseases. "Evolution is a relentless tinkerer," he says. "By looking at tinkering over the course of hundreds of billions of years, we’re going to learn a lot about function."

While Collins's beliefs about the world are grounded in scientific knowledge, he is also a religious man. In some quarters, talking about evolution and God in the same sentence is contradictory, but not for Collins. "I don’t see any conflict at all between someone who’s a rigorous, show-me-the-data scientist who can see that evolution is strongly supported by every avenue of scientific evidence," he explains, "but who also believes in a god who has a personal interest in me."

Collins is no stranger to the religious and ethical questions that arise around genome research. "We begin to bump into the interface between scientific possibilities and moral decision making," he points out. As people sort through the questions presented by genetics, they will come to different conclusions based on their own values. "As a society, we have to come to grips with that."


Francis Collins
"Knowledge about the genome I don’t think has moral value; it’s neither good nor evil. But what we decide to do with it can have moral value."

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