Skip to Main Content
Skip Nav Destination

Q&A: Francis Collins on science, faith, and COVID-19

20 May 2020

As the 2020 recipient of the Templeton Prize, the NIH director joins a roster that includes Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Rees.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is this year’s winner of the £1.1 million ($1.3 million) Templeton Prize, which was founded in 1972 to recognize progress in religion.

Collins earned a PhD in physical chemistry at Yale University and a degree in medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After medical school, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. In 1993 he moved to NIH to head up the National Center for Human Genome Research. He has been at NIH ever since, stepping into the top job in 2009.

Francis Collins.
Credit: National Institutes of Health

Early in his career, Collins developed “chromosome jumping,” a means to speed up the cloning of DNA fragments. Later he refined a method to locate disease-triggering genes; he and colleagues used it to pinpoint the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis, among other diseases. At NIH he led the Human Genome Project, the vast international effort to identify and map the three billion nucleotides in the human genome. The project was completed in 2003.

Among his many honors and achievements, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2007 and the National Medal of Science by President Barack Obama in 2009.

While a student, his thinking about religion evolved from agnosticism to atheism. Then, through his interactions with patients when he was in medical school, he started asking himself questions that led him to embrace Christianity. He tells that story in his 2006 best-selling book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In 2009 he and his wife launched BioLogos, a foundation to foster discussion about the harmonies between science and faith.

Today Collins says he is spending “every waking hour, and some that should be sleeping” on COVID-19.

PT: Tell us about your educational path, which took you from “quantum mechanics to medical school,” as you have put it.

COLLINS: My 10th-grade chemistry teacher got me to realize how exciting science could be as a detective story, where you are trying to find answers to mysteries. So when I went to college I majored in chemistry. Thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics emerged as the really fascinating fields that brought together mathematics and the study of how atoms and molecules behave.

After graduating from the University of Virginia, I took on the challenge of being a PhD student at Yale. I was in chemistry but on the physics end of things. My thesis was entirely a theoretical project. I was trying to calculate the exchange of energy between the translational state and vibrational state when you bounce protons off hydrogen gas. This was in the early 1970s, so this was pencil, paper, and boxes full of computer cards written in Fortran.

But somewhere along the way, I discovered I had narrowed my horizons. I had ignored the life sciences completely because they seemed really messy. As a graduate student, I had a friend who was doing something with recombinant DNA. I realized there is a logic to life science, there is information content—called DNA—and you could approach it in a quantitative way.

That led me to a crisis. I was well into a PhD program, and suddenly I was feeling this sense of losing my bearings. I was pretty shaken up, and I wasn’t even sure whether research was the right path for me. I was already married and had a young child. I stirred around quite a bit and decided the best way to keep my options open was to apply to medical school.

I wrote my PhD dissertation on the weekends while being a first-year medical student.

PT: How did you go from being an atheist to being a committed Christian?

COLLINS: The transition began in my third year in medical school, which is the time you are assigned to patients. Many of them were severely ill, and many would die no matter what I did to try to save them. It was my first real experience of being close, day after day, to life-and-death decisions, and of watching people facing the end of their life.

At one point, one of my patients who I was quite fond of turned to me and asked, “Well, what’s your faith, doctor? I’ve told you about mine. What do you believe?” I had a deep sense of discomfort that I had no answer. That started me on a journey. And frankly, I thought the journey would take me to a place of documenting and strengthening my atheism. To my surprise, it turned out differently.

PT: Are faith and science connected for you? Or are they separate universes?

COLLINS: I think they are very connected. When I became a Christian at age 27, I was already deeply invested in studying genetics. People said my head would explode, that there was no way I could hold those two worldviews in my head at the same time. But that has never been a problem for me.

If I am trying to understand something about the natural world, science is the way I am going to understand it. But there are questions that are not well suited for science, like “Why is there something instead of nothing? What was there before the Big Bang? Why do those universal constants in natural laws have exactly the values they do to make complexity possible? What is beauty all about? What does love mean? Is there a God, and if so does he or she care about me?”

Once I began recognizing the importance of those questions, I realized that this is where the other way of finding truth comes in: faith.

PT: Has your faith caused any confrontation or otherwise put you at odds with your colleagues?

COLLINS: I’ve been very well treated by the scientific community. Admittedly, I was not all that public about my faith as a junior faculty member at the University of Michigan.

Along the way, I did get some pushback. Most of the discussion about science and faith over the last two or three decades has been dominated by the extreme voices. On one side are the strong atheistic arguments that faith is irrational and has done more harm than anything else in the history of humanity. On the other end of the spectrum, one encounters fundamentalist views that deny scientific discoveries. Most people don’t find those attractive places to sign up for, and I think there has been a hunger for a middle ground.

I decided near the end of the Human Genome Project, in 2003, that maybe it would be appropriate for me to say more about my perspective. And I found that talking about faith and science became a really important conversation, particularly with students. They were hungry to discuss these worldviews and how they might fit together—not as separate views that can’t overlap, but coexisting in the mind of an individual person, like they do for me.

PT: That’s a good segue to BioLogos.

COLLINS: That foundation is something I feel most gratified about. It happened as a result of the publication of The Language of God. The book elicited an outpouring from people who wanted to go further and deeper into this conversation about faith and science. I got thousands of emails. That led to the founding of BioLogos. I think it’s now the most heavily traveled site for people who are wrestling with the issues of how to put science and faith together. It’s wonderful to see how it has grown, always taking the approach of being loving and civil, with no mudslinging. It’s a bright light in what has been a murky discussion in this country.

PT: You founded BioLogos and immediately stepped aside. Why?

COLLINS: It launched in April 2009, the very month I was asked by President Obama to become director of NIH. I learned from White House lawyers that I was required to separate myself from any other enterprise, including my own foundation.

PT: As NIH director, how has COVID-19 changed your life?

COLLINS: I feel a sense of urgency almost like I’ve never felt before as a scientist. We can’t afford to miss an opportunity or to make a mistake, and at the same time we have to pursue research that is high risk, because otherwise it will take too long to get where we need to be. I am totally focused on the effort to speed up the developments.

A month ago I organized ACTIV—it stands for Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines—a group of 18 companies working with NIH, the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense. We are all trying to make things happen months faster than they otherwise would. It’s working well. Nobody is worrying about who gets credit, and companies at this point are not really thinking about profit. They just want to get something out there that will help people. It’s amazingly intense and exhilarating. It’s also exhausting.

Take vaccines: There are more than 100 in development. Four or five of them are further along, but they are all going to have to be tested in a rigorous way. I hope that by the end of the year, we will have millions of doses for the highest-risk people.

There will be failures; not all of these things are going to work. That’s why we need a menu of possible vaccines, a menu of possible treatments, and a menu of diagnostic test platforms. If half of them fail, that’s okay, as long as half of them work.

Diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines are the big three. But there are lots of other efforts in this space. For instance, we want to understand the strange syndrome that children are getting that seems to be connected to COVID-19. And I am worried about how this pandemic is affecting mental health. People have fears about catching the disease and about the economy. We need to understand that and figure out how to assist people.

PT: How is the COVID-19 work funded at NIH?

COLLINS: We are able to redirect some of NIH’s $42 billion annual budget. And Congress has provided another $3 billion specifically for the most pressing research needs for COVID-19. That makes it easier to be bold.

PT: How can physicists contribute to combating and dealing with COVID-19?

COLLINS: To develop new rapid and accurate diagnostic tests for the virus, we need people with skills in physics, engineering, robotics, and optics. We need to quickly determine if a swab that came out of somebody’s nose actually has viral RNA in it.

Just two weeks ago we put out a solicitation for ideas. People should bring them forward, and we will provide them with a team—a shark tank—of business experts, engineering experts, technology experts, and scale-up experts to see whether their idea can quickly be turned into something that could make a difference. If their idea looks promising, we will provide funding to help them improve the approach. For the best ideas that make it through progressively more stringent tests, we will make available substantial funds for massive scale-up and deployment across the country.

When we put out that solicitation, I thought we might get a few dozen applications. As of last count, it’s over 1600, and many of them are led by physical scientists and engineers who see this as a great opportunity to do something to help.

Close Modal

or Create an Account

Close Modal
Close Modal