Success Breeds Success
123rd ACD Session Focuses on Maintaining Momentum
Ten days before its presiding officer for the last 12 years handed the gavel to acting NIH director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, the advisory committee to the director (ACD) convened virtually for its 123rd meeting on Dec. 9-10. It was the fourth straight online-only session, due to the global pandemic that was on the brink of entering into year 3.
For 2 days the group learned of progress against some of the nation’s toughest issues—taming Covid-19 amid newly emerging variants, eliminating structural racism and improving diversity in the biomedical research workforce, confronting skepticism of science and spread of mis- and disinformation, preparing for the next pandemic, and capitalizing on the potential of artificial intelligence to solve complex medical puzzles.
The meeting had all the components of previous sessions—budget and legislative updates, working group reports, research briefings—and something extra: Invariably, presentations were punctuated with hearty applause, warm well wishes and touching farewells for Dr. Francis Collins, who had led NIH since 2009 and soon would step down from the post to return full time to his lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
“We’ll miss your steady scientific leadership for sure,” said Dr. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University and currently the longest-serving ACD member, “and we will also miss the dinners at your home with your wife, Diane, and being entertained by one of your other talents [guitar-playing and singing]. Yours has been an amazing tenure these last 12 years and we thank you so much for leading NIH, especially during these last years in what has to be the most challenging [period] in recent memory. It has really been a true privilege to serve you in an advisory capacity.”
Wilson led off sharing sentiments that seemed to be carried unanimously among members of NIH’s most respected group of advisors.
Virtual Tribute Page for Collins Features Scores of Well-Wishers
Visit https://www.nih.gov/farewell-dr-francis-collins to view a video tribute and farewell greetings from more than 100 prominent figures around the world as Dr. Francis Collins stepped down as NIH director.
In his final meeting as moderator, Collins used his director’s report to reflect on the past 12 years and emphasize that so many of NIH’s achievements during his administration were sparked by the ACD.
From planning a new center—the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) in 2011—to brainstorming ways to inspire and nurture the next generation of biomedical researchers in 2012 to launching the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in 2014, an ACD working group was in on the ground floor helping to build and develop the idea.
Describing himself humorously as a “lame duck” director, Collins urged the group to keep the pace and momentum going.
“We’re going to count on you going forward to continue the tradition of digging into substantive areas and giving NIH wise, thoughtful, well-considered advice, which ACD has just done brilliantly,” he said. “I think it’s a model that we ought to sustain.”
Also on day 1, with the focus largely on the pandemic, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke in a video recording of the latest on Covid-19 and its newest variant, omicron. A briefing on Covid-19 vaccines by Vaccine Research Center director Dr. John Mascola and a discussion of coronavirus therapeutics by NHLBI deputy director Dr. Amy Patterson followed.
NHLBI director Dr. Gary Gibbons then talked about the RECOVER program, which is studying effects of long-term Covid-19 in a nationwide large-scale effort, with NICHD director Dr. Diana Bianchi detailing what is known about multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.
Dr. Carl Dieffenbach talked briefly about pandemic preparedness and how NIH is using funds from the American Rescue Plan to consider ways of building a new generation of antivirals, beyond coronaviruses.
The day ended with an update by NIH associate director for data science Dr. Susan Gregurik and Dr. Elaine Nsoesie of Boston University School of Public Health on the Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) Program. Several ACD members were interested in how NIH planned to sustain AIM-AHEAD funding long term, given potential agency budgetary and leadership shifts.
“Nothing brings success like success,” Tabak said. “Our hope is that with [the consortium’s] continuous advances we are able to demonstrate the value that AIM-AHEAD brings.”
On ACD day 2, advisors first heard the latest on HeLa Genome Data Access from its working group co-chairs: ACD member Dr. Spero Manson of Colorado School of Public Health and NIH acting associate director for science policy Dr. Lyric Jorgenson. This group, which weighs ethical considerations posed by data/resource sharing in the broader biomedical research community, is another example of a concept Collins nurtured from a seed planted by ACD.
Then, the session turned once again to pandemic-related topics with news on NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative. NIBIB director Dr. Bruce Tromberg gave an update on RADxTech, followed by NIMHD deputy director Dr. Monica Webb Hooper and NICHD deputy director Dr. Alison Cernich with a briefing on RADxUP.
NCATS acting director Dr. Joni L. Rutter talked about the Accelerating Medicines Partnership’s recently launched Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium that aims to build an infrastructure to speed development of customized treatments for rare diseases.
The final portion of ACD day 2 addressed diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives at NIH, with updates on UNITE activities by several of its cochairs and a look at DEIA plans overall by NIH chief officer for scientific workforce diversity Dr. Marie Bernard.
The meeting’s final presenter, NIMHD director Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable, discussed the inaugural Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) Program awards.
ACD’s winter session 2021 ended with Collins’s sharing several “lessons learned” over the last 12 years:
“Surround yourself with brilliant people,” he urged, “and give them permission to tell you you’re full of it…look for novel partnerships…NIH has a lot of resources but the most important is the people.”
He concluded with a “farewell to troops,” delivered in his signature fashion, via song—I’m Leaving for the Lab Again to the tune of John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane.
“I leave with many memories | Of hills we’ve climbed in ACD…It’s you who’ve made our plans succeed | Providing hope to those in need | To all of you, my thanks just overflow | I’m leaving for the lab again | What a joy these years with you have been | Dear friends, now it’s time to go.”