Commenter SLC tricked me into violating my moratorium on reading anti-accommodationist blogs, curse him. The discussion, such as it is, focuses on an essay written by Francis Collins introducing a book of essays on religious belief. Naturally, this has various people up in arms, clamoring for Collins to resign from the NIH because he repeated his long-held and oft-stated belief that science and religious faith are compatible (for him, at least).
I’m not really interested in engaging the substance of Collins’ claims, nor the counter-arguments by the anti-accommodationists. It’s boring, no one changes their mind, it generates needless squabbling and namecalling and armchair psychoanalysis. More annoyingly, it isn’t clear that the anti-accommodationists know what they’re talking about. Consider Jerry Coyne’s argument that Collins should resign over this essay. At the end of a long dissection of the essay’s claims, Coyne builds toward his demand that Collins resign as NIH director by stating:
He’s the chief government scientist…
and therefore oughtn’t to be espousing any particular religious argument. Which is a reasonable point, I suppose, one which can be discussed in parts. But it is badly undermined by the fact that Collins is in no sense the chief government scientist.
Collins is Director of NIH. As such, he is a member of the Department of Health and Human Services, answering to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Consulting the HHS organizational chart, we find that he has the same rank as an Assistant Secretary, parallel to the director of the CDC (an MD/MPH), the head of FDA (an MD, neuroscientist, neurophysiologist, and HIV researcher), etc. This would also give him equal rank with Jane Lubchenco, an ecologist (like Coyne) who was chosen to run the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and therefore serves as an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Interior. Neither ranks as highly as Stephen Chu, a physicist and biologist who serves as Secretary of Energy, or John Holdren, a physicist who has worked on climate change, nuclear proliferation, plasma physics, and aeronautics and who now serves as the President’s science advisor and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (a cabinet-rank post, as I understand it). We might also mention the co-chairs of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST): Holdren, Harold Varmus (Nobel-winning biomedical researcher and former NIH director) and Eric Lander (computer scientist instrumental to the Human Genome Project).
One could name a chief government scientist by several criteria. The most obvious criterion is how highly ranked someone is; Collins is outranked by Holdren and Chu, at bare minimum. Chu also controls the nation’s nuclear stockpile and possesses a Nobel Prize, which ought to count for something.
Someone concerned with DC realpolitik could point out that Collins controls the largest science research budget in the government; I would retort that his science funding ambit is not nearly as wide as the NSF director’s (himself a scientist having taught and researched in nuclear engineering), and is almost entirely allocated through peer-review panels, and cannot be directly controlled by Collins. Collins’ narrow ambit also applies to science policy, where OSTP has a broader portfolio, as does PCAST. Indeed, if anyone else had written that the NIH director was the nation’s chief scientist or intimated that he spoke for science in general (and not just for some fraction of the biomedical research community), I would hope Coyne would join my outrage at all of science being reduced to biomedical research. There’s a lot more to science, as Coyne well knows.
This is, admittedly, a small point, but it goes to the heart of Coyne’s call for Collins to resign. If Collins speaks for science, Coyne seems to be arguing, then he should resign when his statements clearly go outside the bounds of scientific consensus. There being no scientific consensus around whether science and faith are compatible, he should not continue to be the government’s chief scientist.
But he isn’t the government’s chief scientist. His job isn’t to speak on behalf of science per se in the White House or in public. His job is to administer NIH, and in his free time, he can do as he likes. Science and religion has long been one of his interests, and he contributed an introduction to a book on the topic. Yes, it identifies him as director of NIH, but Coyne’s book and blog identify him as a professor at the University of Chicago, and no one pretends that Coyne’s comments in his private writings are official statements by one of the nation’s premiere research institutions. In Collins’s essay, a section entitled “My Own Perspective On Science And Faith” presents … his personal view on the topic. I disagree with it, Coyne disagrees with it, others are free to do the same.
But that’s not cause for firing him from a job that he seems to be doing just fine. He’s getting big budget increases for biomedical research, he’s continuing to expand access to newly derived stem cell lines, and nothing in Coyne’s bill of indictment suggests any faults in his administration.
The fact is, Coyne’s disagreements with Collins are not scientific, are not biomedical, and are not relevant to his employment. When people start talking about ousting public servants because they state their religious beliefs, I start getting defensive. I know I didn’t care for the Bush administration’s habit of asking members of advisory panels about their religious views before they could advise on unrelated topics. And I’ll happily call out my allies if they tread that same path.
One hopes Coyne can acknowledge this modest error, and will also retract the demand that Collins be fired, as that demand seems dependent on that same erroneous premise.