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Francis Collins Interview (page: 5 / 6)
Presidential Medal of Freedom
What are the biggest frustrations, the biggest disappointments you have to deal with?
Francis Collins: One area that's a constant frustration is the way we, in this country and in many others, undervalue what we're capable of doing in research. We believe that we ought to have the best health care in the world. In some ways we do, and in some ways we don't, because of the inequities in our health care system. But we're not willing to invest in research over the long term.
Scientists who have good ideas bring them to the National Institutes of Health, where I work. They put forward their proposals, they're evaluated by peers and experts. Roughly one-quarter of them that are approved and judged meritorious actually get funded; the rest are turned away, because we can't afford to pay for them.
We spend about one-and-a-half percent of our health care budget on research. No company would dream of only plowing back one-and-a-half percent of their business into research. Yet we seem comfortable doing that with something as important as health care. That's frustrating. There's so many things that we could do.
What does it take to do this work? When a young man or a woman comes to you and says, "I want to do this," what do you tell them?
Francis Collins: I believe that genetics and genomics and molecular biology are the sciences that are going to drive the 21st century. Anybody who has a heart for scientific investigation is going to find themselves in a glorious way. There's room here for all kinds of interests and all sorts of disciplines are needed.
We need computer scientists to interpret all this data. We need engineers to speed up the process of deriving that information. We need chemists and physicists, people who understand optics, and we need biologists, lots of them. We need people who are concerned about physiology. How do you take all of this genetic information and actually build a liver or a heart and make it work? We need people who care about law and the genetic interface with the law, whether it's in forensics, or in discrimination or privacy. We need ethicists. We need theologians. I think there is far too little dialogue between the church and the scientific community when it comes to genetics.
What personality traits are required to be successful at this kind of work?
Francis Collins: I think genetics, like most science, requires persistence. Experiments don't work all the time. Putting in an hour here and there will not make progress you need to make. Experiments have a nasty habit of going on beyond five o'clock.
It requires, genetics in particular, an interest in sort of the mathematical side of science, because it is a very mathematical part of biology. The way the DNA works, it's just a simple four-letter alphabet, it's like a digital code. And some degree of feeling comfortable with that is a good thing, although one need not be an expert in calculus. I don't think I've use calculus since I became a geneticist, but it's good to have some good familiarity and friendliness with the concepts of probability, for instance.
[ Key to Success ] Preparation
It requires keeping your mind broad. A narrow geneticist doesn't make the kind of observations that ought to be possible. Genetics is a tool, but it has to be applied to an interesting biological problem. The geneticists I know who are the most successful are the ones who also are willing to read voraciously about cell biology, about physiology, about biochemistry. Not that they need to be experts on that, but they can't be scared of those fields. Take an observation that's occurred in one of those fields and apply it to what you know. That's often the way the revelations come through.
Outside of that, I don't think one needs special attributes. You don't have to be an Einstein to be a very successful genetic scientist. It's almost easy now. The technology of genetics has come so fast that there's a long list of interesting problems nobody's had time to get to yet. If you're interested in the problem, the tools are there. You have a high likelihood of discovering something really exciting.
What's the next challenge you look forward to?
Francis Collins: When you have a chance to oversee a project of such significance, it's hard to imagine what to do next. The time will come when role in this comes to a close and it will be time for somebody else to do it. Something else will come along that really appeals to me. I don't know how to plan for that. I'm having too good a time to worry about it. I never dreamed I'd be doing this, and whatever I do next will probably be something I haven't dreamed of either.
I learned early on that targeting your own future too precisely is really a mistake. There may be a few people who go through their whole life following precisely the path that they imagined for themselves at age 15, but I can't think of any. One does much better I think to expect change it, to see it as an opportunity to do something you wouldn't have thought of. That's how you stay fresh. That's how you stay interested. That's how you stay inspired. It's a wonderful privilege we have in this country.
What challenges do you see for America in the 21st century?
Francis Collins: It's hard for me to look more than 5 or 10 years into the future. When I think about what I knew 20 years ago, I would not have been able to predict what's going on now. I think we need to live up to our responsibility as the leaders of the free world. I think we need to look at the ways that we are treating our own people and root out some of the inequities that we turn our heads always from. Inequities that relate to prejudice. We are always figuring out ways to think that somebody else is lesser and we are greater.
As a geneticist, I look forward to the time when we can say -- because we'll have all the data -- that race doesn't really exist. It may be a social construct, it may be a cultural construct, but it sure ain't a scientific construct. And I think we already know that in some generalities, but we'll know that in detail pretty soon. And that will be good, because I think that is a chronic sore on our culture that we are unwilling to cope with. And for the 21st century, if we could focus on that as our highest priority, that would be wonderful.
[ Key to Success ] Vision
There are many other inequities, for me as a physician. A situation where we allow 40 million people to go without any form of health care is appalling. We, of all the countries in the civilized world, have the least sense of equity in the way we distribute those resources. It's an embarrassment, yet we go on year after year accepting this, and crowing about how wonderful our medical system is. It is if you've got money, but it sure isn't if you don't. That does not reflect well on us as a country that prizes justice. I don't think access to health care is a privilege, I think it's a right. We have not offered those rights to everybody equitably.
As the leader of the free world, with such wonderful resources, we ought to invest more in the way of research. I'm not just talking about the kind of research I do. We need to encourage research of all sorts. The things that are going on in space and physics and chemistry and engineering are all exciting. We never know how they're going to fit together. We should attach more value to that. We're not fighting any wars right now. We don't have any great enemies. If there was ever a time in history that we ought to put more value in planning for the future, this is it.
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This page last revised on Sep 19, 2010 13:25 EDT
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