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White House to Nominate Collins as NIH Director

8 July 2009 4:59 pm
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It's official: The White House intends to tap geneticist Francis Collins to lead the National Institutes of Health. President Barack Obama's announcement today ends months of speculation that Collins, leader of the international Human Genome Project, was about to be named to head the $30.6 billion agency. Collins has been rumored to be interested in the job since he stepped down as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) last summer.

The president has chosen a 15-year veteran of NIH, a skilled administrator and communicator who has many supporters in the scientific community. But he also has critics because of his support for "big biology" and his openness about his religious views. Despite reservations, scientific leaders are praising his selection. "Francis is one of the most accomplished scientists and scientific leaders of his generation. ...Having worked with him for many years I am sure that he will rise to the unique challenges of this job", Elias Zerhouni, who resigned as NIH director last fall, told Science recently. Former NIH Director Harold Varmus says, "He'll be a remarkably good director." The Association of American Medical Colleges declared that it is "very pleased."

Some observers had hoped for more fanfare, however. The White House made the announcement with President Obama away in Italy at the G-8 summit. In a press release, Obama said: "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, 59, came to NIH in 1993 from the University of Michigan, where he made early gene hunting discoveries, including the cystic fibrosis gene. He steered the rampup of the Human Genome Project and its race against a private effort led by J. Craig Venter that culminated in a tie to finish a rough draft of the human genome in 2000. Since then, Collins has led follow-on efforts, including the HapMap, which has fueled the search for genetic risk markers for common diseases. He resigned last summer, saying he wanted to write a book about personalized medicine, then later joined President Obama's transition team.

Earlier this year, Collins launched a Web site, Biologos, expanding on his 2006 book explaining how he reconciles his evangelical Christian beliefs with the science of evolution. The project sparked speculation that he was no longer in the running for NIH—or that these extracurricular activities could instead be a plus with the culture-bridging Obama Administration. One question now is whether he will step down from the Biologos project; Varmus, for one, says "he should" to avoid "interference with his effectiveness."

Even Collins' biggest fans in the genetics community say that the motorcycle-riding, guitar-playing scientist will need to carve out a new, broader role. Collins did "a fabulous job as NHGRI director," says geneticist Aravinda Chakravarti, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. But now, Chakravarti says, "He will need to understand, feel, and anticipate the interest of a much broader constituency," including small-lab investigators in fields such as infectious diseases and cell biology.

Crafting new conflict of interest regulations and shaping NIH's role in health care reform will also be on his plate. However, the "obvious acute issue," says molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco, "is the stimulus money and concern about the 2011 cliff." That is, after years of flat budgets, NIH is now flush with $10.4 billion in money but no clear plan for what will happen to stimulus-funded scientists when the agency's budget drops back to normal levels in 2011.

Collins' nomination will go to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee. One question is whether the committee will approve him before its August recess.

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