Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is decrying the political polarization that has led some Americans to question the science behind climate change and COVID-19.
Collins, who led the Human Genome Project that mapped human DNA, urged Americans to renew their commitment to “truth and reason” while accepting the 2020 Templeton Prize, one of the world’s top religious awards, on Thursday.
“Of all the developments that cause me concern over the past few years, none is greater than the growing disregard of maintaining a high standard of objective truth,” said the 70-year-old geneticist and devout Christian, who received the award for demonstrating how science and faith are compatible.
“Somehow, with a lot of assistance from social media, the adherence to fact over fiction, to accurate narrative over conspiracy theory, has taken a major hit. All thinking persons should raise the alarm about this,” he said.
Collins is one of the researchers credited with pinpointing the genes responsible for genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis. In 2009, former President Barack Obama tapped him to lead the National Institutes of Health, the government agency that heads up medical and public health research.
Collins spoke during the awards ceremony about how he spends “almost every waking hour” fighting COVID-19 ― from trying to accelerate the development of better diagnostic tests to working on vaccines to prevent future infections.
When the pandemic first emerged as a global threat, Collins said he hoped it would draw people together against a common enemy. Instead, people have become more divided, he said. The geneticist bemoaned how simple, scientifically approved ways of combating the virus — such as wearing a face mask or getting a vaccine once one becomes available — have become controversial issues.
“What should have been harmony in the name of saving lives has become a conflict,” Collins said.
These divisions are taking place against the backdrop of climate change, which Collins called the “greatest long-term threat to our planet.” Although the data clearly demonstrates that climate change is real and that human activity is largely responsible for it, people still doubt the science, he noted.
“As time passes with no coordinated plan of action, we grow closer and closer to a potentially devastating outcome. Surely all of us who care about our planet should be invested in creation care? Yet again, we are polarized,” he said.
Collins also lamented that Americans are still divided about the fact that systemic racism exists.
“Any serious look at our current circumstances reveals that the consequences of 400 years of slavery and discrimination are still with us, and demand significant change,” he said. “But once again, not all agree, and the polarization of Americans is glaringly apparent.”
Collins didn’t explicitly name President Donald Trump in his speech. But he did hint at the upcoming election, stating that it was important to choose leaders who are “healers, promoters of truth, the rule of law, advocates of spiritual anchoring, and proponents of love, respect, justice, and compassion.”
The Trump administration has taken significant steps to scale back the country’s efforts to fight climate change. Trump has denied that systemic racism in policing exists. The president was initially resistant to wearing face masks himself to combat COVID-19 and has also publicly clashed with Anthony Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Collins, who is Fauci’s boss, has steadfastly defended the infectious disease expert, including in April, when Trump shared a tweet arguing it was “Time to #FireFauci.” Collins has also had to directly push back against Trump’s suggestion that a coronavirus vaccine would be available by Election Day.
Earlier this month, Collins said he was “puzzled” and “disheartened” by Trump’s decision to hold a campaign rally in Michigan that drew several thousand attendees, many of whom were not wearing face masks or socially distancing. Collins suggested that an alien who realized that masks had become a politically partisan issue would conclude that “this is just not a planet that has much promise for the future if something that is so straightforward can somehow get twisted into decision-making that really makes no sense.”
As a former atheist who embraced Christianity in his 20s, Collins has invested time in reaching out to those in his faith community who are wary of science. He is the founder of BioLogos, a faith-based advocacy group that promotes the idea that science and faith are compatible ― and that one can actually enhance the other.
Last month, BioLogos organized a statement signed by dozens of Christian leaders calling on fellow believers to follow the advice of public health experts to combat COVID-19.
Public opinion polls have shown that white evangelicals, in particular, have generally been less worried about contracting COVID-19 and are more ready for life to return to normal than other faith groups. They are the demographic least likely to believe that climate change is occurring and the most likely to say that police killings of unarmed Black men are isolated incidents.
To heal all of these divides, Collins urged people to seek fact over fiction, renew their commitment to spirituality, and build friendships with those they disagree with.
“Reach out to listen, not to insult or denigrate. Seek the common ground of fairness and compassion,” he said. “Blessed are the depolarizers, for harmony can show us a better way.”
The Templeton Prize, which comes with an award of over $1 million, honors individuals who have explored the big questions about the universe and humankind’s place within it. Previous awardees include Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.