THE geneticist Dr Francis Collins, best known for leading the team that mapped the human genome, has been awarded the £1.1-million Templeton Prize for 2020.
Dr Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States and is deeply involved in the effort to find a Covid-19 vaccine. The citation for the Templeton award is for “demonstrating how religious faith can inform and inspire a rigorous quest for knowledge of the natural world through the sciences”.
In addition to his work, Dr Collins, who is 70, has also been a leading voice in arguing that the Christian faith and science are compatible.
Heather Templeton Dill, the president of the foundation founded by her grandfather, the philanthropist Sir John Templeton, hailed Dr Collins’s efforts as a “scientist, government official, and public intellectual” to encourage greater curiosity and humility among both scientists and religious believers.
He had helped to illuminate a “pathway toward a sober and intellectually honest integration of the scientific and spiritual perspectives”, she said in a statement announcing his award on Wednesday.
In his own statement, Dr Collins said that his 43 years of Christian faith had explored “joyful harmony” between science and religion. “As I write this, almost my every waking moment is consumed by the effort to find treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19.
“The elegant complexity of human biology constantly creates in me a sense of awe. Yet I grieve at the suffering and death I see all around, and at times, I confess, I am assailed by doubts about how a loving God would permit such tragedies.
“But then I remember that the God who hung on the cross is intimately familiar with suffering. I learn and re-learn that God never promised freedom from suffering — but rather to be ‘our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’.”
Dr Collins, who was raised on a farm in Virginia, began to reflect more deeply on religious belief while studying chemistry and biochemistry. After receiving his doctorate from Yale, he changed his career track and studied medicine. In his third year, he was struck by the faith of his patients and began to explore the writings of C. S. Lewis.
He later pioneered techniques in genetics at Yale Medical School and in 1993 was chosen to lead the Human Genome Project, which had mapped out every gene in human DNA by 2003.
In 2006, he came to attention outside the world of science when his book The Language of God (Books, 19 October 2007) — which recounts his journey from atheism to faith — became an international bestseller. Since 2009, he has led the National Institutes of Health, which today is focused on research into the coronavirus.
Throughout the pandemic, Dr Collins has urged faith communities to ignore conspiracy theories and trust science.
In a recent Washington Post interview, he explained how he kept his spirits up, quoting from the book of Joshua: “‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’ That encourages me, and faith leaders can spread that kind of exaltation around in a way that I think will encourage others.”
The Templeton Prize was inaugurated in 1972 to recognise individuals who had made “progress in religion”, but over time its aim has shifted. This year, the trustees reformulated its purpose, and said that they would aware the Prize to people who were “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it”.
The financial award is set to always exceed that of the Nobel Prizes, which, Templeton said, failed to recognise the significance of faith.
The first laureate was the late Mother Teresa. Among others have been the Dalai Lama (News, 30 March 2012) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (News, 5 April 2013), as well as, now deceased, Billy Graham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Jean Vanier (News, 13 March 2015).