Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, will end the longest tenure of any NIH director—12 years straddling the administrations of three U.S. presidents—when he steps down from the agency’s helm at year’s end.
“It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade,” Collins stated today. “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 added: “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 became the NIH’s 16th Director in 2009 following his appointment by then-President Barack Obama. Collins became the first NIH Director to serve in more than one presidential administration, having been retained by both of Obama’s successors, Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden.
“As he returns to his lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute, we look forward to his unmatched ability to unlock the possibilities within our reach and that define the best of who we are as Americans,” Biden said Tuesday.
Collins said he will continue to helm his research lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), which he led as Director from 1993 to 2008. AT NHGRI, Collins led the international Human Genome Project, which culminated in April 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book.
“Having a human reference genome informs such a broad swath of human biology,” Adam Felsenfeld, PhD, NHGRI program director in the Division of Genome Sciences, told GEN last year.
The most significant result, he said. was “the ability to conceptualize the entire genome, or at least all the genes, as a finite number of things.” Adopting a comprehensive mindset—thinking genomically—has allowed scientists to formulate new questions and develop new technologies. These activities, Felsenfeld added, have led to “all the genomics advances that we enjoy.”
Before joining NIH, Collins had worked with colleagues to help identify to identify the gene for cystic fibrosis in 1989, followed a year later by the gene for neurofibromatosis, and the gene for Huntington’s disease in 1993. “Over nearly three decades at the NIH, Francis Collins has made countless, lasting contributions to human genetics and genomics and to all biomedical research,” American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) President Gail Jarvik, MD, PhD, said in a statement.
Collins’ lab focuses on studying genomics, epigenomics and single cell biology to understand causes and means of prevention for type 2 diabetes, and also seeks to develop new genetic therapies for Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome.
“The Right Timing”
Collins announced his resignation today, though news reports of his pending departure emerged last night. He told The Washington Post last night that he had been thinking about stepping down since May, before concluding: “There comes a time where an institution like NIH really benefits from new vision, new leadership. This was the right timing.”
As NIH Director, Collins presided over the agency’s creation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Medicine (NCATS), with an eye to accelerating translation of basic research discoveries into new drugs, and the retirement of nearly all chimpanzees it owned or supported for agency-funded research. He led NIH in launching the All of Us Research Program, which is designed to glean health and wellness data from 1 million or more Americans, but has yet to reach that enrollment goal.
During his tenure, NIH’s budget increased 38%, from $30 billion in FY 2009 to $41.3 billion in FY 2021.
“Dr. Collins has established a legacy as a tremendous advocate for the power of research to lift hope, and constantly expand the possibilities for research to provide answers to the devastation caused by disease,” stated Mary Woolley, President and CEO of Research!America. “His gift for communicating the value of research to policymakers and the public is among his many superpowers.”
Perhaps most importantly, Collins oversaw the NIH’s responses to the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak, and the COIVID-19 pandemic. Along with Anthony S. Fauci, Director of the NIH’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Collins emerged as a public advocate for prevention measures that have generated controversy, such as mask wearing and vaccination.
On Twitter, Eric Topol, MD, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, tweeted that Collins “has made immense contributions to biomedicine.
“I am saddened to see him stepping down, want to express the deepest appreciation for decades of leadership,” Topol added.
“Dr. Collins is a national treasure,” tweeted Craig Beam, a past chairman of American Heart Association and former member of the advisory board to the Director of the NIH: “He led the genome sequencing efforts over a decade ago that has led to many discoveries.”
“Many don’t realize that he is a born-again Christian, good piano player and besides being brilliant, a gentle man,” added Beam, a former President and now Senior Advisor of Petra, which provides end-to-end facility concept, planning, development, and project management services for healthcare clients. “His guiding hand at NIH will be missed.”
After forsaking atheism to embrace Christianity in his 20s, Collins sought to reconcile faith and science in his book The Language of God (Simon & Schuster, 2007), in which he noted that when President Bill Clinton led the celebration of completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000, he remarked “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life> we are gaining more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.”
When it was his turn to speak, Collins wrote, he added: “It’s a happy day for the world. It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring, to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”