Is Francis Collins Guilty of Overselling Science?
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
I have long argued that Francis Collins would make a strong candidate to head the NIH, considering his scientific credentials, his past administrative experience, and his ability to communicate effectively. Unlike some critics, I see his work on the relationship between science and religion as a major bonus, offering an important middle ground voice on the topic.
Yet an opinion article appearing this week at The Scientist offers a valuable constructive critique: Collins, like many others in science, may be guilty at times of hyping and over-selling the promise of research. The general tendency towards hype, as we argue in a recent article at Nature Biotechnology, is perhaps the greatest threat to continued public trust in science.
From the conclusion to the opinion article at The Scientist, by Neil Greenspan, an immunologist and professor at Case Western Reserve University:
So, while Dr. Collins has many impressive credentials, talents, and skills relevant to directing the NIH, his tendency to make dubious claims for the future benefits of genomics is unsettling. The director of NIH should be a reliable and realistic source of medical information if the entire biomedical research enterprise is to remain credible. Therefore, in the future, Dr. Collins should harness his intellect to control his enthusiasm so that he is more realistic in his public pronouncements regarding improvements in medical care that will undoubtedly develop in part from new insights into human genetics and genomics.