Renowned geneticist Francis Collins has announced he will step down as director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the end of the year.
“Now is the right time, this is the right message, this is the right decision,” said Collins, who led the US $ 41 billion biomedical agency through a historic and deadly pandemic. Selected for the post by former President Barack Obama in 2009, Collins has held the post longer than any other presidential candidate and has served in three administrations. It’s time for the agency to have new leadership, he said, adding that he wondered if his departure from the post would disrupt the NIH’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I am not concerned that if I step away by the end of the year it will seriously undermine our contribution to the fight against this pandemic.”
Collins has built a reputation as a savvy spokesperson for scientific research, gaining supporters from all parties, even during a politically charged public health crisis. “I think he deserves an A + as a director of NIH,” says Elias Zerhouni, a radiologist who held the position for six years, before Collins. “I know how difficult it is to keep this going, and frankly I think we owe him a debt of gratitude.”
“World Class Scientist”
Prior to assuming the most senior position at NIH, Collins made key contributions to the burgeoning field of genetics and medicine. He co-discovered the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, and his lab, ultimately at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at NIH, found genes linked to conditions such as Huntington’s disease and type 2 diabetes. At the head of NHGRI from 1993 to 2008, he directed the Human Genome Project, join former president Bill Clinton to announce the first results of a sequence of “work projects” in June 2000.
“He’s a world-class scientist,” says Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, who describes Collins as a professional partner and close friend.
During the nearly eight years that Collins led the NIH under Obama, the agency launched major, big-budget science projects, such as the massive but controversial Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, which seeks to map the brain to better understand neurodegeneration. diseases and the “All of Us” Precision Medicine Project, which aims to collect and study health data from at least 1 million Americans, with the goal of designing health care that’s right for people.
Collins was due to resign when Donald Trump took office as President of the United States in 2017; each new president had previously chosen his own agency head. Trump’s anti-science campaign rhetoric had alarmed scientists. But when Trump asked Collins to stay, he agreed. “I thought it was an honor to be able to continue to exercise that kind of leadership at a time when everyone was a little nervous about, ‘What’s going to happen to science now? “
Fauci, for his part, was happy to have Collins as a colleague. “When there’s a lot of anti-science stuff going on there, it was really wonderful to have Francis Collins as a strong partner,” he says.
More recently, under Collins’ leadership, the NIH played a role in containing the COVID-19 pandemic: research conducted and funded by the agency led to the rapid manufacture of mRNA vaccines against the SARS-coronavirus. CoV-2 in record time, including one in partnership with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna.
“I see the NIH as acting like the white knight riding the proverbial horse because they worked with Moderna to develop the vaccine,” says Jo Handelsman, a microbiologist who was associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology. Politics under Obama.
Collins’ time with the NIH was not without controversy. In 2019, scientists blasted the agency’s decision, under Trump, to ban government scientists from working with stem cells derived from fetal tissue and adding barriers for researchers seeking grants for such work. The agency has also been criticized by the scientific community for being slow to adopt policies protecting researchers from sexual harassment. Collins led an effort to start instituting changes, and some of them have been rolled out, although some researchers still believe the agency could do more.
Additionally, the scientists called on the agency to better fund black researchers, who see fewer rewarded projects compared to white researchers. The NIH is the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research. During Collins’ day, its budget grew 38%, from $ 30 billion in 2009 to $ 41.3 billion in 2021.
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked nationwide recognition of structural racism, and the NIH prioritized work to respond to those criticisms, culminating in a multi-pronged effort called UNITE, announced in March of this year, which aims to close the funding gap, invest in studying health disparities, and fostering an inclusive culture within the NIH and the institutions it funds.
“I think it’s revolutionary, and I’m just grateful he did it,” Handelsman said of UNITE.
Such high-profile initiatives have started conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion in science, says Jonathan Jackson, a neuroscientist who studies equity in clinical research at Massachusetts General Hospital. But he’s still waiting to see those efforts make a difference: “We don’t see any significant change. He hopes the next NIH chief will make a more permanent and visible change.
Collins will continue to run his lab at NHGRI after stepping down as director. US President Joe Biden has yet to name a successor.
Hana El-Samad, a biochemist at the University of California at San Francisco, who has called on science agencies to make science workplaces less racist, says she hopes the next head of the agency “will be the one who has have lived experiences of how diversity drives innovation, ”she wrote in an email to Nature.
This person will also face a very different political and cultural landscape – one where health misinformation is rampant – than the landscape Collins experienced when he first took the job.
“Some of the public wants to rank beliefs and rumors on the same level of veracity as experimentation and scientific data – this is an ongoing challenge for all of us,” says Handelsman. “It will definitely be for the next NIH director.”