WASHINGTON — Below the famed portraits of George and Martha Washington in the East Room of the White House, geneticist Francis Collins looked genuinely comfortable to be sharing a stage with some of America’s most brilliant scientific minds — chemists, biologists, the creators of Adobe desktop publishing software — and President Barack Obama.
Collins, a Staunton native who was recently appointed to direct the National Institutes of Health, was one of nine recipients of the 2008 National Medal of Science, America’s highest science honor, on Wednesday. At the same ceremony, four people received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
At the opening of the ceremony, Obama joked he had “ulterior motives” for inviting the scientists and innovators to the White House, and said he hoped they would offer some advice for his daughter Sasha’s upcoming science fair project. When the laughter died down, Obama turned serious, and addressed objections he’d heard about the billions of dollars in stimulus funds going toward scientific research.
“Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security and our health, and our way of life than it has ever been, and the winners we are recognizing only underscore that point, with achievements in physics and medicine, computer science and cognitive science, energy technology and biotechnology,” Obama said. “We need to ensure that we are encouraging the next generation of discoveries — and the next generation of discoverers.”
Obama said two goals of his administration were to devote 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product to research and development and increase the number of college graduates to become the highest in the world by 2020.
The week before the ceremony, Obama visited Collins and his colleagues at NIH to announce that $5 billion in stimulus funds would go toward financing 12,000 grants for scientific research in every state.
Collins received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 from President George W. Bush. Collins values the award, but said the day before the Medal of Science ceremony that Obama shows a true dedication to scientific progress and research. He said receiving this medal from the Obama administration makes the award particularly significant.
“It will be a special honor for him to be the person placing the medal around my neck,” Collins said.
This award is the latest example of Collins’ national attention this year, from Obama’s appointing him to direct the NIH to appearing alongside Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry in GQ Magazine in Geoffrey Beane’s “Rockstars of Science.” He was on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” — for the second time — last Thursday. He said the attention isn’t hurting his cause.
“Part of my job is to try to present the face of biomedical research to the public,” said Collins, who believes the media attention will keep taxpayers aware and, hopefully supportive, of NIH. “If it provides some credibility in this regard, it’s a good thing.”
Biologist J. Craig Venter also received the Medal of Science on Wednesday. Collins lead the publicly-funded Human Genome Project, and Venter founded the privately funded Celera Genomics, and both raced to map the human genome. The scientists jointly announced the success of the feat in 2000, but their competition often made the news and was the subject of a 2005 play “The Sequence” by Paul Mullin.
Collins said their rivalry is old news, and both men are being honored for their individual accomplishments beyond mapping the genome. Venter pioneered the field of synthetic genomics and is working to create the synthetic cell. Collins’ research revolutionized the understanding and treatment of diseases, including cystic fibrosis.
Collins said the research by both the public and private sectors is collaborative and necessary. He said fundamental information about scientific discoveries needs to be available to the public — which Celera disputed in the 1990s — but nothing beats the private sector and their enormous funding in developing products like medicine.
Collins’ wife, Diane Baker, a board member for the Genetic Alliance, and his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret attended the National Medal of Science award ceremony.
Brandon Collins, his older brother who lives in Staunton, said he’s proud of Francis but was unable to get a ticket to the ceremony because of limited seating. Brandon said he couldn’t attend the swearing-in when his brother was named head of NIH either, but he doesn’t despair.
“Maybe when he gets the Nobel Prize, I’ll go to Stockholm,” he said.