A Geneticist for NIH Director

President Obama chooses the genome scientist Francis Collins as his nominee for director of the biomedical research agency.
July 9, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Francis Collins, a geneticist and physician who spearheaded the Human Genome Project, was nominated by President Obama Wednesday to lead the National Institutes of Health. Collins -- who ran the NIH's National Human Genome Research Institute for 15 years before he left the organization in 2008 -- will succeed the interim NIH director, Raynard Kington, and the biomedical agency's former director Elias Zerhouni, who resigned last October.

Obama stated in a news release: "The National Institutes of Health stands as a model when it comes to science and research. My administration is committed to promoting scientific integrity and pioneering scientific research and I am confident that Dr. Francis Collins will lead the NIH to achieve these goals. Dr. Collins is one of the top scientists in the world, and his groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease. I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead."

Collins has also been influential for his writings on the link between science and religion, most notably writing a book called The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press). In the public policy realm, Collins was instrumental in helping to pass the Genetic Information Nondescrimination Act, which prohibits treating people differently because of their genetic makeup. This, for example, stops an insurance company from refusing a policy to someone more genetically prone to disease. Before he began work at NIH, Collins also ran a lab at the University of Michigan that discovered the genes for cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, adult acute leukemia, and a number of other diseases.

Higher education associations praised the selection as a substantial step in the right direction for NIH, especially for promoting biomedical research.

Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, said in a news release: "Dr. Collins will fire the enthusiasm of the American people and our national leadership for a renewed and sustained commitment to biomedical research. We in the research university community look forward to working with him."

Berdahl further lauded Collins for engendering the important balance between pioneering innovative research and "the need for public understanding" of science.

"This is a guy who has world-class scientific credentials, he has great managerial skills, but he also has an understanding and ability to influence public policy," said Patrick White, vice president for federal relations at AAU.

In a release, Association of American Medical Colleges President and CEO Darrell Kirch stated: "He is an exceptional scientist, administrator, and communicator," adding that in addition to his work on the Human Genome Project, "Dr. Collins has written eloquently about the potential of medical research to transform how we think about health and health care."

Though Collins has for some time been considered a top candidate for the position, Obama's announcement caps a nine-month long search to fill the position -- a period of time that some have considered to be quite lengthy. But White emphasized that it took President George W. Bush 14 months to nominate Zerhouni.

"We in the community are very anxious to have an NIH director because NIH is so important, because it's a new administration and these are exciting times, and especially because the administration views science and education as top priorities," White said. "But historically there have been bigger gaps."

With Senate confirmation, Collins will officially take charge of the NIH. Though the agency currently oversees more than $30 billion in funds, White said that managing the budget will be one of the biggest challenges of the next NIH director. The agency received an additional $10.4 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Obama has requested another $443 million increase in budget allocations for NIH next fiscal year. But the agency may see a dropoff in funding after the stimulus legislation ends if the NIH budget is not increased.

"Unfortunately, we have been in a boom and bust cycle for NIH funding for the last decade. In some sense, that is the symptom of a larger problem, and I think Dr. Collins is going to be the person who can best address that," White said. "He can provide a compelling justification for maintaining our country's present leadership in science."

In a meeting with the press here Wednesday prior to the announcement of Collins's nomination, Mark Lively, the new president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, presented a report similarly encouraging the government to increase NIH funding in future years. He emphasized that money for the NIH needs to come in predictable increases -- rather than a boom and bust cycle -- once the stimulus funds run out. Otherwise, NIH runs the risk of delaying research projects and cutting jobs. The hope, Lively concluded, is to create a "steady path forward."

While it remains to be seen what influence Collins might have in increasing the NIH budget, White said that the agency's next director will have the president's full attention in presenting the case. "What the NIH director can do, and what Collins is superbly capable of doing," White said, "is telling [the president] what the benefit of such an investment is."


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