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NIH Chief, Who Led Fight Against COVID, Alzheimer’s and Cancer, Retiring

October 5, 2021 by Dan McCue
Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., Director, National Institutes of Health

WASHINGTON — Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health for 12 years and a key leader in the nation’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, is retiring.

Collins, who is 71, said he intends to step down as the director of the NIH by the end of the year. 

In doing so, the physician-geneticist, will cap an amazingly prolific career in which he directed crucial research into the human genome and the fight against Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes, among other diseases, in addition to COVID.

He also has the distinction of being the longest serving NIH director, having served three U.S. presidents during his tenure at the institute.

“It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade,” Collins said in a written statement released by the NIH. “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.”

Collins said while he is proud “of all we’ve” accomplished, he “fundamentally believe[s] … that no single person should serve in the position for too long.”

“It’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future,” he said, adding, “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 was appointed the agency’s 16th director in 2009 by President Barack Obama and was asked to remain in that post by Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. 

He is the only presidentially appointed NIH director to serve under multiple administrations.

Prior to becoming the NIH director, Collins served as the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute from 1993-2008, where he led the international Human Genome Project, which culminated in April 2003 with the completion of a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book.

In a lengthy statement issued by the White House, Biden called Collins “one of the most important scientists of our time.” 

“During the course of his extraordinary three-decade career at the National Institutes of Health, and the world’s preeminent medical research organization, he helped finish the sequencing and mapping of the human genome to unlock the mysteries of our DNA, which earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, and through which I first got to know him when I was a United States Senator,” Biden said.

“He helped launch the Obama-Biden administration’s groundbreaking work on precision medicine to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease by taking into greater, and more precise, account of people’s genes, environments, and lifestyles,” the president continued.

“And like he did with the human genome, we asked Dr. Collins and the NIH to map the human brain through our BRAIN Initiative to better understand Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and other neurological diseases,” he said.

After his son Beau died of cancer at age 46 in 2015, Biden, then vice president, was asked by Obama to launch their cancer “moonshot,” an effort to fuel innovation and accelerate new treatments.

“I turned to Dr. Collins to help lead the effort to end cancer as we know it,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. “There was no one I trusted more.”

The president also recalled that soon after he was elected, Collins was among the first people he called, asking him to stay on and continue to fight “one of the worst public health crises in our history.”

“I understand his decision to step down from his post at the end of this year, [but] I am grateful he answered the call to serve,” Biden continued.

“Millions of people will never know Dr. Collins saved their lives. Countless researchers will aspire to follow in his footsteps. And I will miss the counsel, expertise, and good humor of a brilliant mind and dear friend,” he said.

“As Director of the National Institutes of Health during one of the most serious pandemics in our history, Dr. Collins has provided sound, thoughtful, and reassuring leadership to health care professionals and others on the front-lines of fighting COVID-19,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said. “His impact on the well-being of our people, on medical research, and on promoting safer and healthier communities will be felt for generations to come.  I join in thanking him for his lifetime of service and in wishing him and his wife Diane all the best in the years ahead.”

The NIH, based in Bethesda, Maryland, is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s the nation’s medical research agency and operates more than two dozen institutes and centers and claims to be the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world.

Known for his accessible, plain-spoken manner, Collins garnered broad bipartisan Congressional support for NIH research. 

Over the course of his leadership, NIH’s budget grew by 38%, from $30 billion in 2009 to $41.3 billion in 2021. 

Collins was also well regarded for his pushing bold initiatives — extending from fundamental basic science to translational science to focused projects — to tackle some of the most pressing health issues facing Americans, including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, opioid use disorder, rare diseases and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Few people could come anywhere close to achieving in a lifetime what Dr. Collins has at the helm of NIH,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. 

“It takes an extraordinary person to tackle the biggest scientific challenges facing our nation — and under three presidents, amidst three distinctly different chapters of American history,” Becerra continued. “Dr. Collins, master of scientific breakthroughs and scientific reason — from mapping the human genome to fighting the most devastating pandemic of a century — has routinely broken ground to save countless lives, while unleashing innovation to benefit humanity for generations to come.”

The NIH said Collins will continue to lead his research lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute after he steps down as head of the institution.

In addition to his work at the NIH, Collins is also known for his writing on religion and science. In 2020, he was awarded one of the world’s leading religion prizes, the Templeton Prize, for demonstrating how religious faith can motivate scientific research.

Collins is also widely known as a motorcycle and guitar enthusiast.

While directing the National Human Genome Research Institute, he formed a rock band, called the Directors, with other NIH scientists. 

Their foil in battles of the bands was a rock band from Johns Hopkins University led by cancer researcher Bert Vogelstein. 

According to the July 2009 edition of The NIH Catalyst, an in-house publication, the Directors’ songs included spoofs of rock classics rewritten to address the challenges of biomedical research.

His love of music also inspired him to partner with the Kennedy Center to expand the Sound Health Initiative, which was announced in February 2017. 

Sound Health aims to expand current knowledge and explore ways to enhance the potential for music as therapy for neurological and other disorders.

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