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Volume 87 Issue 28 | p. 5 | News of The Week
Issue Date: July 13, 2009

Francis Collins To Direct NIH

President Obama picks former genome institute leader for top spot
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: Francis Collins, NIH, Obama
Pending Senate confirmation, Collins will take the reins of the nation's $30 billion biomedical research agency.
Credit: NHGRI
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Pending Senate confirmation, Collins will take the reins of the nation's $30 billion biomedical research agency.
Credit: NHGRI

President Barack Obama announced on July 8 that he will nominate Francis S. Collins to lead the National Institutes of Health. The nomination comes more than eight months after former NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni stepped down.

"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," Obama said in a statement. "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."

"Francis is an inspired choice," Zerhouni tells C&EN. "He has all the attributes to bring NIH to an even greater level of excellence if he can manage the rough waters that we are about to see" as a result of budget pressures and health care reform.

Collins is no stranger to NIH. He joined the agency in 1993 to lead the then-National Center for Human Genomic Research. He oversaw its 1997 transition into the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), which he directed until leaving last August.

During his tenure at NIH, Collins led the successful government initiative to sequence the human genome and played a key role in the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research. In an interview with C&EN last year, Collins noted that he was leaving NHGRI to explore other professional opportunities (C&EN, Aug. 4, 2008, page 33).

"In my 15 years at the helm of NHGRI, I learned to love NIH, and to have enormous respect for the dedication, talent, creativity, skill, and selflessness of its leaders," Collins wrote in a July 8 memo to NIH staff. "I am enormously excited by the chance to work with you all again, but now in an even more challenging role."

Initial reaction to the nomination is positive, although some observers note that Collins' well-known religious beliefs might make some uneasy. His views on being a scientist and a practicing Christian were the topic of a high-profile 2006 book.

"He's going to have to manage his religious positions carefully," Zerhouni notes. As a public servant, Collins' role must become more of a convener for debating issues such as religion and science but not an advocate for any one group, Zerhouni says.

Perhaps the biggest challenge awaiting the next NIH head is dealing with the ups and downs of the budget that will result particularly from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act but also from fluctuations in the annual federal budget. "These transitions are hard to manage," Zerhouni notes. "It will require quite a bit of agile management."

But having a permanent director in place who can advocate for sustained budget growth before Congress is essential, says Mark O. Lively, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Collins is a highly respected scientist and will work to provide NIH with a stable and predictable budget, he adds.

According to American Chemical Society President Thomas H. Lane, "Collins, a chemist, has made tremendous contributions to the advancement of science." He adds, "NIH will be well served to have a scientist of such caliber play a key leadership role in guiding the agency in the years ahead."

"Collins brings impeccable credentials and experience to the position," underscored Biotechnology Industry Organization President and CEO Jim Greenwood in a statement. "His vast experience with government agencies combined with his unparalleled scientific expertise make Dr. Collins an outstanding advocate for the NIH."

Collins now faces confirmation by the Senate, a process that Zerhouni and others hope will go quickly.

"This is an agency that cannot stay without permanent leadership for too long," Zerhouni says. "It is a multiplicity of institutes, and it needs strong central leadership to coordinate all of that."

 
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