It’s the end of an era. After 12 years at the helm, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, announced today that he will be stepping down as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by the end of the year. Here’s a tweet from the physician-scientist-leader-motorcycle-rider-rock-musician announcing his plans:
Whoa, this is a bit like hearing the end of the Beatles, ABBA, the Spice Girls, NSYNC, and One Direction runs, although Collins and the NIH are not breaking up. Far from it. He will be stepping down from his role as director but will continue to lead his research laboratory at the NIH. It’s just that with the longest ever term, Collins as director and the NIH have been like peanut butter-and-jelly or avocado and basically anything else. The two have long been associated together with each other.
In fact, no other Presidentially-appointed NIH Director has served for more than one Presidential administration, let alone three. His name is not Dr. Francis “The Rock” Collins. That nickname is kind of already taken. Nevertheless, Collins has been a rock before and through what has been a really rocky past several years for America.
Remember 2009? That was when America was still recovering from a major recession and far too many people wearing Crocs, not that the two were related. The world was also in the midst of another pandemic, the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. Well, August 17, 2009 was when Collins first officially became the the 16th Director of the NIH, after President Barack Obama nominated him and the Senate soon confirmed him unanimously. Collins subsequently continued in the position through the rest of Obama’s two consecutive terms, President Donald Trump’s one term, and the first year of President Joe Biden’s presidency.
In a statement from the NIH, Collins related that “It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade. I love this agency and its people so deeply that the decision to step down was a difficult one, done in close counsel with my wife, Diane Baker, and my family. I am proud of all we’ve accomplished.”
He continued by saying, “I fundamentally believe, however, that no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future. I’m most grateful and proud of the NIH staff and the scientific community, whose extraordinary commitment to lifesaving research delivers hope to the American people and the world every day.” Note that Collins used the word “scientist” here. A scientist is who should be leading any scientific endeavor, initiative, or organization unless “messing up” is one of the goals. After all, you wouldn’t have a clam bake announcer who doesn’t have any football experience lead a football team, right?
Collins was already a rock star of a scientist prior to leading the NIH. He had been the bedrock of the then-super-ambitious goal of mapping the human genome. He had led the Human Genome Project and served as the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) from 1993 through 2008. That work rocked the world as knowing what parts of human DNA handled what body functions has led to many new discoveries along with potential ways of treating different diseases. He’s an elected members of the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. In 2007 then-President George W. Bush presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As you can see, Collins’ appeal extended across both major political parties.
Over the past decade plus, Collins has launched a number of large biomedical initiatives. For example, there was the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which supported researchers developing new technologies to better understand how the brain works and address problems such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and psychosis. Another example has been the All of Us Research Program, an ambitious project that has already gotten a million Americans to offer data on themselves to help researchers determine how different factors affect health and move more towards precision medicine. Precision medicine means better tailoring medical treatments and health care to different people. A third example has been the Accelerating Medicines Partnership, which has brought together public and private entities to accelerate the translation of initial scientific discoveries in labs into real products on the market.
Collins has steered NIH through some of the most tumultuous years that the scientific community has faced in recent memory. From 2017 through 2019, former President and current Mar-A-Lago resident Trump repeatedly proposed to Congress massive cuts in NIH funding and scientific research in general. Such cuts would have been a huge punch in the face to science in the U.S. and made America grate and far less than first in World. Fortunately, with Collins and others advocating for the NIH, Congress essentially said “oh, no you didn’t” and “WTH are you doing” to the Trump administration and ignored these proposed reductions. They chose instead to increase the NIH budget.
Then there has been that little thing called the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Ever since the early days of the pandemic, when toilet paper suddenly became the new gold and people learned that “flattening the curve” had nothing to do with body shaping, Collins worked to help put together major initiatives to help develop new ways of preventing and treating Covid-19. These included the:
- Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV): a public-private partnership to accelerate development of new vaccines and treatments
- Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostic (RADx) program: to catalyze the development of new Covid-19 tests,
- Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities: to assist disadvantaged communities hit hardest hit by the pandemic
- Researching COVID to Enhance Discoveries (RECOVER) Initiative: to address the growing problem of long Covid.
Throughout the pandemic, an anti-science sentiment has permeated many political and business leaders like a gigantic lingering fart. This has kept Collins and other physician scientists caught between a rock and a hard place, trying to tell everyone, “help us help you,” kind of like what the Tom Cruise character did in the movie Jerry Maguire. Through it all, Collins has remained focused on combating both the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and the anti-science hogwash at the same time.
Most recently, Collins has been working with the White House to propose to Congress an innovative new agency, called Advanced Research Project Agency for Health (ARPA-H), that would be housed under NIH and aim to catalyze higher-risk, higher-reward biomedical and health research. As I described for Forbes previously, ARPA-H, if approved by Congress, could help get past some of the risk-averse, “fund more of the same stuff” tendencies that the current NIH peer-review process may continue to propagate.
Collins has been willing to rock the boat as well when it comes to doing something about many long-standing issues that have hampered the progression of science. One issue has been the structural racism that exists throughout the scientific community and has been holding back the work and advancement of many scientists of color. Another barrier that Collins has tried to tackle is sexism and sexual harassment. For example, back in 2019, Collins announced that he will no longer appear on any “manels,” as I covered for Forbes. The term “manels” may sound like a piece of furniture or a new cologne designed to drive you wild but are actually all-male, non-diverse panels that have been driving a lot of scientists wild in a bad way. A third barrier has been scientists and organizations hoarding data as if they were toilet paper and not sharing such information with the rest of the scientific community and general public.
Collins also rocks literally. He is an accomplished musician and formed a band originally called “The Directors,” which eventually became the “Affordable Rock ‘n’ Roll Act (ARRA),” and consists of various past and present NIH members. The band has made a number of appearances in different venues, including our 2018 D.C. Science Writers Association (DCSWA) Holiday Parties in Washington, D.C. As a member of the DCSWA Board and planning committee for the party, I can say the AARA was certainly “affordable” and really rocked the joint.
Through it all, Collins has brought a distinctly human face to running the NIH. Despite his many accomplishments and responsibilities, he’s remained very accessible to other scientists and the public. He’s reminded everyone that scientists can be highly effective and multi-talented leaders who can enact change across a wide range of sectors. In essence, Collins has reminded everyone that physician scientists can really, really rock.