Dr. Francis Collins, the folksy, guitar-playing director of the National Institutes of Health, announced Tuesday that he plans to step down as head of the gigantic research agency by the end of the year.
“It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade,” Collins, the longest serving presidentially appointed NIH director, said in a written statement Tuesday.
“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. 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,” Collins said.
“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.”
Collins, who has served under three US presidents, will continue to lead his research laboratory at the National Human Genome Research Institute, according to the announcement.
The Post said Collins, who has been director of the NIH since 2009, would leave by the end of the year. The Post quoted “an NIH official” as saying no decision has been made on an interim director. The NIH director’s position is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
“There comes a time where an institution like NIH really benefits from new vision, new leadership,” the Post quoted Collins as saying, without noting when the interview was conducted. It quoted Collins as saying this was the year for him to make the move. “This was the right timing,” he told the Post.
Collins helped discover the genetic mutations involved in cystic fibrosis and neurofibromatosis type 1, which causes tumors on the skin, face and elsewhere. He became director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at NIH in 1993 and stayed there until he moved on to head all of NIH in 2009. As NHGRI director, he raced against privately funded genome entrepreneur Craig Venter to sequence the human genome first and ended up publicly collaborating with his institute’s flashier rival.
As NIH director, Collins oversees the world’s largest biomedical agency with a budget of nearly $52 billion. NIH gives out close to $42 billion every year for medical research and 6,000 scientists work in its own laboratories on the sprawling NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, right outside Washington, DC.
He’s Dr. Anthony Fauci’s boss, as the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is one of the many institutes that make up NIH. These include the National Cancer Institute, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and others.
Collins has been a public face advocating for vaccination against coronavirus and common sense measures to control the pandemic such as mask use. The NIAID, under his leadership, helped develop the Moderna vaccine now being used to battle the virus – and funded the years of research that helped get the vaccine ready to roll in months instead of the usual years needed to develop a new vaccine.
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Collins has tried to bridge the growing gap between US conservatives and the scientific establishment by stressing his Christian beliefs. “I am a scientist and a believer, and I find no conflict between those world views,” he wrote in a commentary for CNN in 2007.
Collins, who is 71, also advocated for more equality and announced in 2019 he would no longer serve on all-male panels. “Breaking up the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bias that is preventing women and other groups underrepresented in science from achieving their rightful place in scientific leadership must begin at the top,” he said at the time.