Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., will remain director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to a Jan. 19 announcement, so he will continue to oversee such groundbreaking programs as All of Us, formerly called the Precision Medicine Initiative; the Cancer Moonshot; and the BRAIN Initiative.
A geneticist by training, Collins gained international renown as head of the Human Genome Project, which completed sequencing most of the human genome in 2001. After serving as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute from 1992 to 2008, he became NIH director in August 2009.
Collins brings to the role of NIH director his knack for overseeing large-scale projects that require visionary thinking. During his tenure, the use of big data in biomedical research has surged, and Collins’ initiatives are leading to inspired applications of cutting-edge technology. For example, 2012 saw the launch of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, a key partner in the Tox21 program that is transforming toxicology testing.
The right person at the right time
In early December, the chairs of four key congressional committees, two in the Senate and two in the House, sent a letter to the president-elect requesting that Collins be retained. “He is the right person at the right time to lead the world’s premier biomedical research agency,” the letter read in part. It was signed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, J.D.; Sen. Roy Blunt; Rep. Tom Cole, Ph.D.; and Rep. Fred Upton.
Although it is not known whether Collins will remain as permanent director under the new president, NIEHS breathed a collective sigh of relief at the news. “Francis is really good at what he does,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. “Given the changes that accompany any presidential transition, continuing to have a leader with his smarts and experience means that we can get on with our work discovering exposures that can harm health, and spreading the word about prevention.”
The news was greeted with international applause, with stories in such journals as Nature, which is published in the U.K., and Science. The move was also covered in the Washington Post, and by scientific organizations, such as the National Association for Biomedical Research.
The Nature piece quoted Tony Mazzaschi, senior director for policy and research at the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health in Washington, D.C. “I think everyone in the research community will be thrilled,” he said.
Geneticist reflected on noble mission
Back in December 2016, Collins reflected on his tenure as NIH director in an interview published Dec. 2 by STAT, a national health and medicine publication. Asked about his willingness to stay on, he said that although he had submitted his resignation, he would consider staying to be a privilege.
“I love NIH,” he is quoted as saying. “I think the mission of this organization is extremely compelling. I’d even say it’s a noble mission, aiming to try and reduce suffering. People are looking to us for hope with illnesses that currently can’t be managed. I’m also someone who believes in public service. So if I was asked to stay, I would consider it a privilege to do so.”
Before coming to NIH, Collins was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher at the University of Michigan. He is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2007, and received the National Medal of Science in 2009.