Is Francis Collins Bringing Sexy Back To Science?


Rudy Tanzi, Joe Perry, Francis Collins

I know. I was just as surprised as you are. Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, author of The Language Of God, and new director of the National Institutes of Health performed live in front of a group of Washington locals at the Capitol building today. He actually jammed with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry in an “unplugged” performance of Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are A Changin’.” This is not the kind of thing one expects in the hallowed halls of the Capitol building. But maybe it’s time to expect the unexpected?

I’ve spent some time on this blog wondering about the difference between being “right” and being “influential” – and how to combat the Jenny McCarthyism that is misleading Americans about their health. I’ve argued that we need to find a way to rekindle the public’s interest in good science, and learn to speak to folks in a way that is captivating and respectful. I guess that some of our peers are engaged in a rebranding of science.

I happened to have my reporter’s microphone with me in the audience so I recorded the song. The vocalist is Dr. Collins, Joe Perry does a guitar solo near the end, and Dr. Rudy Tanzi is on harmonica. The sound quality is… well… it’s what you’d expect from a hand-held microphone. But it’s worth a listen, just to get to know our new NIH director a little better!

Go to the audio player here.


Delta Goodrem

Australian pop star and cancer survivor Delta Goodrem followed Dr. Collins with this acapella beauty (again, forgive the sound quality):

Go to the audio player here.

A few things struck me about the event. First of all, Francis Collins is more of a “firecracker” than I expected. I read and reviewed his book recently, and his vivacious personality did not come through in its pages as well as it did on the stage with Joe Perry. He’s a fun-loving guy, a serious scientist, and very committed to advancing research and encouraging young people to rekindle their interest in discovery. That’s all very good news for America.

Secondly, I was touched by Joe Perry’s story about wanting to be a marine biologist when he grew up. Apparently he had a learning disability of some sort that was not addressed in school. For that reason, his test scores suffered and he looked for ways to excel outside of the classroom. His bright mind discovered an immediate affinity for music, and he poured himself into a career as a rocker. He still yearns for the ocean, though, and is a certified diver. As I looked at Joe, I kept thinking – my gosh, he might have been the next Jacques Cousteau if he had more help in school. But brilliance finds its own way to flourish – and Aerosmith became his outlet instead.

Thirdly, I realized that there are in fact a few congressmen with their heads screwed on straight when it comes to science. I had almost lost hope after watching video footage of Tom Harkin instructing scientists to validate his opinions rather than test whether or not certain things were true. Yikes. But the three co-chairs of the congressional biomedical research caucus, Reps Brian Bilbray, Mike Castle, and Rush Holt, seemed to truly understand some of the issues facing the advancement of medical research – and are determined to move America forward.

And finally, I noted that there wasn’t a single female or minority “rock star scientist” in the program. That made me a little bit sad. Are we really that rare? I guess we still have a long way to go on that front… And since Dr. Collins mentioned that only 15% of US students are enrolled in science or engineering bachelors’ programs (compare that to 50% in China or 75% in India) we are soon going to be playing catch up with the rest of the world in terms of scientific discovery.

So we’ve got our work cut out for us folks – with our youth’s waning interest in science education, the excessive red tape that is slowing down the process of producing cures, and the public getting their medical advice from the likes of Jenny McCarthy, there has never been a more important time to restore science to its rightful place.

Maybe Francis Collins is going to “bring sexy back” to science?

Do you think that science needs a public rebranding effort?

Posted in: Science and the Media

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8 thoughts on “Is Francis Collins Bringing Sexy Back To Science?

  1. Chris says:

    And since Dr. Collins mentioned that only 15% of US students are enrolled in science or engineering bachelors’ programs (compare that to 50% in China or 75% in India) we are soon going to be playing catch up with the rest of the world in terms of scientific discovery.

    That is an interesting statistic, but is it comparing similar populations?

    My brother recently lived a couple of years in India, and it would be surprising to learn that 75% of the all the kids in India have completed high school, much less are enrolled in engineering program. By the way, he recommends this book: Being Indian : inside the real India.

    Looking at the CIA World Factbook for India, it shows that only 61% are literate (defined as being able to read and write at age 15). The School Life Expectancy is 10 years (male have 11 years, females have 9 years).

    I am pretty sure that China has universal education, but do all of the students leaving secondary school go to college? Looking at the Factbook for China shows 90% literacy rate, which is expected. Though the School Life Expectancy is 11 years (the same for both male and female).

    By the way, for the USA the literacy rate is 99%, and the School Life Expectancy is 16 years.

    If these statistics are bandied about, please make sure that the comparisons are of similar populations. For instance, of all the children born in 1985 in India, China and the USA what percentages became engineers and scientists.

  2. superdave says:

    Can’t help but notice the choice of song…

  3. Val Jones says:

    Chris – sorry, my description wasn’t clear. What I think Collins meant is that of kids ENROLLED in college, 15% are in a science or engineering track in the US, as compared to the tracks chosen by college students in other countries.

  4. Chris says:

    Of course it is just those enrolled in college. Except what is missing is how difficult it is to get into college, much less graduate from high school in India versus the USA (or Canada, or the UK, or Australia… and on and on).

    Saying that 75% of students in India major in science or engineering is not a valid comparison when one third of the total population is illiterate.

    Also, if you got to college in India you are going to major in something with a guarenteed paycheck like engineering. You would not choose art, drama, linguistics, sociology and other similar majors. It is difficult even the USA to get employment with certain majors (both my brother and I became engineers after seeing both our parents be frustrated over not being able to do what they wanted — our mother was an artist and our father was a linguist).

    If these comparisons are going to be made, make them between countries with equivalent access to quality education. Not to mention an education system that works with disabled children (not done in the USA until the first version of IDEA in 1975, when it was the Education for All Handicapped Children Act ). While China is working on it, they still have issues with rural areas.

    This is especially pertinent on a blog where studies trying to make conclusions with unbalanced groups of test studies are analyzed. Of course, Francis Collins should have also known better to compare three totally different education systems.

    Sorry, but these very out of balance comparisons really upset me.

  5. OldGene says:

    Why re-brand science? What are the earnings of scientists compared to medicine, law, banking etc?

    It might be a good idea to increase public understanding of science. But do we really need more science graduates? Where is the demand? How many vacancies for scientists can not be filled? We’ve got high-quality science graduates working in call centres here in Europe.

  6. nitpicking says:

    The truth is, the system is currently turning out science majors and even Ph.D.s who can’t get jobs because we don’t actually DO science.

    The whole “postdoc” thing is a place to park our surplus scientists, because there aren’t enough actual jobs for them. In the time of America’s scientific supremacy, the idea would have been thought absurd. Get your doctorate, become an associate professor.

  7. Eric Jackson says:

    OldGene –

    Struck a bit close to home. I’m a new B.S., I’ve got experience in BSL2 and animal cancer models. All I can find out there is telemarketing. No one seems too interested in hiring anyone with less than a half decade or experience. May just be the economy.

    I can’t help but feel like the quality has sort of fouled the pool. Some of the folks handed degrees the same year I was were the ones who couldn’t work out why it was a bad idea to pick your nose after handling a culture of Staph. Aureus.

    Collins, however, looks rather impressive. Maybe he’ll actually have the necessary moxie to shut down the NCCAM. Hey, we can hope? Right?

  8. Rush Holt not only majored in Physics (go Carleton), but has a PhD! And that’s not the only unique thing about him, he’s the only Quaker in Congress. Check out all cool stuff he’s done at Wikipedia. The guy is a genuine rock star of knowledge.

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