On Friday born-again, evangelical Christian Francis S. Collins went up to Capitol Hill and was confirmed by the US Senate to the most powerful scientists position in the world — director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The reach and impact of this organization, which most Australians may have never heard of, is difficult to grasp. The NIH is, by a huge margin, the largest biomedical research organisation in the world.

Econometric studies have estimated this research generated a rate of return of 25 to 40% per year. In terms of health impacts, between 1965 and 1992, NIH funding was instrumental for 15 of the top 21 drugs with the highest therapeutic impact.

It has an annual budget exceeding A$40 billion (plus an additional $10.4B in stimulus money), most of which is awarded in rigorous peer-reviewed grants to scientists at “extra-mural” universities, institutes and hospitals throughout the US and the world.

NIH funding equates to US$98.06 per capita. Australia’s NHMRC funding is A$634M which equates to A$28.80/US$23.04 per cap, which is 23.5% of the US level, placing us in an embarrassing lowly position on the OECD league table.

To achieve parity Australia would need to spend $2.7B. It can also be noted that NIH funding is about 28% of total biomedical research spending, the rest being private charities and industry. This too is much less in Australia. These comparisons would be much worse using the exchange rate of the second half of 2008 or the long-term average.

The NIH also runs an intra-mural research program, with an annual budget of about A$4.25 billion, on the NIH campus located, together with its administration, at Bethesda just inside the Beltway north-west of Washington DC.

Visitors to DC who are bored with the usual museums and chintzy Georgetown shops and overpriced restaurants, could do worse than catch the Metro to the campus for a tour or listen in on one of the many public lectures, because this is the largest single gathering of scientists on the planet — about 15,000 spread across a mini-city of 27 institutes that focus on different health areas such as cancer, cardiovascular medicine, mental health etc.

You think Silicon Valley or Wall Street are the centres of power and revolution? Those are mere technology and money — while this is the location of the real Masters of the Universe, the guardians of the secrets of life itself!

Francis Collins, a medically-trained PhD scientist, was until last year director of the NHGRI, the NIH’s Genome institute, and as such played a key administrative role in the International Human Genome Project. Prior to serving as director of NHGRI (1993-2008) he was a leading researcher in genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and neurofibromatosis.

While few believe secularism should be a test to be the director of the institute, Collins’ appointment has elicited some very public questioning by a galaxy of prominent scientists and commentators, perhaps because like no other public scientific figure he has been vocal in his views. Collins has published a book (The Language of God, 2006) which received some fairly scathing reviews. Sam Harris, philosopher, neuroscientist and author of the best selling book in defence of atheism (The End of Faith) is one of the most outspoken (recently in a New York Times editorial and his earlier review of Collins’ book.

Others include Steven Pinker, The Washington Post and a celebrated debate between Collins and Richard Dawkins. At times it almost seems a rerun of the Bishop Wilberforce v. T.H. Huxley debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution that took place 130 years ago. Today the internet substitutes for the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

In any discussion of Collins a number of things are invariably mentioned and are worth recounting here. First, everyone who matters agrees that Collins is a very competent administrator capable of running an institute of the highest calibre, and has not shown any propensity to allow his faith to impact his running of a potentially contentious and sensitive area of science, namely genetics and the human genome.

Second, he is an affable fellow who appears sincere in his beliefs (to the point it has been suggested his own genome should be sequenced to discover the Boy Scout gene). Third, he publicly disowns some of the anti-science policies of the religious right: he supports stem-cell research and disavows Intelligent Design (ID, but see below).

So, are there any scary bits? Judge for yourself. In his book he describes how at age 27, he had a revelatory experience. While trekking in the Cascades mountains in winter he came across a magnificent waterfall frozen into three giant curtains hundreds of feet high that brought to mind the holy trinity. “I knew the search was over. I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.”

In the debate with Dawkins he said “I actually find the argument of the existence of a God who did the planning more compelling that the … (…unresolved scientific hypotheses)”. “God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvellous diversity of living things on our planet.” And “…at the moment of creation of the universe, God could also have activated evolution, with full knowledge of how it would turn out.”

Some critics have pointed out that these and similar statements sound awfully like ID and that the only reason for his stated disavowal is to save face amongst his scientific peers.

Sam Harris worries that Collins’ appointment will entrench the “epidemic of scientific ignorance in the United States.” Steven Pinker asks whether a “Scientologist who publicly espoused his belief in Xenu and thetans would be considered too much of a lunatic to have responsibility for the NIH.”

So, has Obama disappointed lots of people, potentially embarrassing the US internationally, or in fact simply validated Francis Collins’ position (or far-sighted strategy?) on faith in American political life? We need to remember that he took over the NHGRI, a sensitive position at the best of times from the outspoken James Watson was appointed under Clinton and survived the Bush administration.

Jim Watson(of Watson and Crick DNA double-helix fame) recently complained very publicly about getting removed from a NIH-National Cancer Institute advisory board for giving a dissenting opinion.

Or is Collins in fact the perfect candidate? How do the evangelical Christians and their political proxies mount an effective argument against stem-cell research when the top scientist is one of their own? God works in mysterious ways.

Michael James is an Australian research scientist. These are the author’s personal opinions and do not represent the views of any organisation or institution with which he is affiliated.

Disclosure: the author has an NIH grant (an entirely unremarkable one but which is worth at least four times the Australian equivalent.)