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Francis Collins

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NIH Director Francis Collins honored for work to bridge science and religion

U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins has won the $1.3 million 2020 Templeton Prize for his work to reconcile science and religion.

The prize, which was first awarded in 1973, was created by John Templeton, a successful investor who died in 2008. It honors those who have advanced Templeton’s vision of “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.”

Collins wrote a bestselling book in 2006 that argues that scientific inquiry and Christianity are not incompatible, and that religious faith can inspire scientific discovery. He has continued to speak publicly about those ideas since he became NIH director in 2009, even as some researchers have criticized those activities as inappropriate for the leader of a federal science agency.

Collins’s selection for the prize raised fresh controversy after it was announced on Wednesday. Peter Daszak, leader of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance—which last month had its NIH grant that supported bat coronavirus research in China canceled after it was criticized by conservative media and President Donald Trump—questioned whether Collins deserved the honor, given his public silence on the unusual grant cancellation. “Is letting politics block science part of [Templeton’s] vision?” Daszak tweeted. (The John Templeton Foundation had decided on the Collins award before NIH canceled the EcoHealth Alliance grant.)

Collins, 70, embraced Christianity as a medical student and led the Human Genome Project to its completion in 2003 before taking the helm at NIH; he is its longest serving director.

In his 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins argues that “belief in God can be an entirely rational choice.” To create a platform for further dialogue about harmony between science and biblical faith, Collins and his wife, Diane Baker, founded the nonprofit BioLogos Foundation in 2007. The organization publishes articles and podcasts from scientists who are also Christians and promotes the view that God drives creation through evolution. Collins ended his work with that group after taking the helm at NIH.

The prize’s judges selected Collins last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic; since it began, he “has urged faith communities to trust science” to fight the disease, the organization added.

After learning of the award, Collins told the Religion News Service that his faith has informed his response to the pandemic. He said he has wondered why God allowed the pandemic to happen but does not see the virus as a punishment from God. He quoted Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”

“If we want to look at God’s role in the coronavirus pandemic,” Collins said, “that’s where I’d look.”

The John Templeton Foundation funds research as well as projects at the intersection of science and religion (including at AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider).

Other scientists who have won the annual Templeton Prize include cosmologist Martin Rees (2011) and physicist Freeman Dyson (2000). Nonscientists honored have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2013), the Dalai Lama (2012), and Mother Teresa (the inaugural award in 1973).