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Vol. LXI, No. 18
September 4, 2009

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Coming Home
Collins Sworn in as NIH Director

On the front page...

New NIH director Dr. Francis Collins packed probably a week’s worth of work into his first day on the job Aug. 17. Following a short informal swearing-in at 8 a.m., he briefly assembled senior Office of the Director staff and then held an all-hands town hall meeting in Natcher auditorium. By early afternoon, he was addressing members of the media for the first time as head of the nation’s largest medical research agency. Throughout the day, Collins emphasized two things: the community spirit at NIH is a treasure and he will make communication a top priority.


  Dr. Francis Collins, joined by wife Diane Baker (c), is sworn in as NIH director. Chris Major, head of NIH human resources, administers the oath.  
  Dr. Francis Collins, joined by wife Diane Baker (c), is sworn in as NIH director. Chris Major, head of NIH human resources, administers the oath.  

“It’s great to be home again and that’s what this feels like to me,” he said, after entering the auditorium to a standing ovation. “I can’t imagine a better outcome [to his year-long absence from NIH to write a book on personalized medicine and serve on the Obama transition team] than to be here taking on this enormous challenge, which is exciting, daunting and perhaps the most amazing job that anybody could ever ask for, to lead this institution, which represents everything that is awesome and wonderful about biomedical research.”

‘Brilliant Collection of Minds’

Collins reminisced briefly about the first time he set foot on the NIH campus in 1972. He was 2 years into pursuing a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Yale. For an assignment, he asked to visit NIH and meet with esteemed NCI investigator Dr. Ira Pastan. The encounter had a profound effect on young Collins.

“It was remarkable to me to find the kind of environment created here on this campus—so open, so encouraging,” he recalled. “I left thinking this must be the most amazing place to do research in the world...My opinion has not changed.”

Musing aloud, Collins said the world-class facilities and $30 billion budget here are noteworthy but don’t completely explain the agency’s value. “What makes NIH so special anyway?” he asked. “It’s really the people, the amazing creative way that the people who work here serve the public from whatever direction and in whatever job they have.

“Notice what a diversity of people contribute to our mission,” he continued, describing several employees by name and job. “That’s what makes us special. It’s not just a collection of brilliant minds but a brilliant collection of minds. Think about the difference.”

Collins said as director he wants to preserve and channel NIH’s unique environment. “Zest, laughter, compassion, imagination,” he said, borrowing terms his playwright mother used to describe the community where Collins was reared. “Doesn’t that sound like NIH? That’s my hope for us, for what we can continue to be here.”

Five Themes, Broadly Outlined

Collins (r) receives a standing ovation as he enters his first town hall meeting as NIH director. Deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington (second from r), who served for 9 months as acting NIH director, jokingly advised him not to get too used to such receptions.

Above, Collins (r) receives a standing ovation as he enters his first town hall meeting as NIH director. Deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington (second from r), who served for 9 months as acting NIH director, jokingly advised him not to get too used to such receptions.

Launching into his vision for NIH, the new director said, “Of course the mainstay of NIH both intramural and extramural will be the creativity of individual investigators.” He shared “five areas of special opportunity in the coming years”:
  • High-throughput technologies, which “provide us the opportunity to ask questions that before now had to be limited in their scope because our science couldn’t get beyond that...Questions that have ‘all’ in them: What are all the transcripts in a cell? What are all the protein interactions?”

  • Translation of NIH science into practice. “We have to take advantage of the new discoveries of the causes of diseases, to push that agenda forward as rapidly as we can to develop diagnostics and preventive strategies and therapeutics for the diseases we currently treat poorly or often can’t even diagnose.”

  • The third theme is “putting science to work for the benefit of health care reform. We are being called upon increasingly at NIH to produce the data necessary to make wise decisions about health care and I don’t think we should be reluctant to respond. I think this is an opportunity to inform a conversation that is going somewhere and clearly needs to go in a direction based on evidence.”

  • Greater focus on global health. Collins suggested it may be time for the U.S. to be viewed in a new light and that NIH could play a crucial role. “[In recent times] the world has seen us as the soldier to the world. Might we not do better both in terms of our benevolence and our diplomacy by being more of a doctor to the world?”

  • The last theme, he noted, is related to all the others: “The need to reinvigorate and empower the biomedical research community through stable and predictable funding increases, through high-quality training programs, for particular focus on encouraging young scientists, making sure our peer review system is rewarding risky and innovative approaches, emphasizing the diversity of the workforce and using the NIH Common Fund creatively” to support projects that fall outside the mandate of an single institute or center.

As for what challenges Collins foresees, he said the one that keeps him up at night is the post-ARRA period that he described as potentially “falling off a cliff” in terms of sudden funding losses. Still, he said, NIH will make the case that we are good for the economy in terms of job creation as well as in potential reduction of health care costs.

Broad Range of Questions

For the last half of the hour-long meeting, Collins answered questions from the audience as well as a few that had been emailed in response to the announcement of the town hall meeting. He addressed a wide range of issues from whether his priorities include health disparities research to allocating resources based on disease burden.

He was also queried about potential changes to the Intramural Research Program. He said he believes the IRP is strong and that he is resistant to the idea of any dramatic redo of it. Noting that he will continue to maintain his own lab in Bldg. 50, he said, “I have great admiration for the IRP. I am one of you. I am excited at what you do.”

To watch the town meeting in its entirety, visit and click on Past Events.
Collins Meets the Press

Collins Meets the Press

Shortly after 1 p.m. on Aug. 17, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins sat down in Wilson Hall with more than two dozen representatives from various media outlets, including several who participated via telephone. After offering an abbreviated version of his five-theme Vision for NIH, he addressed questions that ranged from Will there be many top personnel changes? (answer: searches are under way for directors at NHGRI and NCI. The NIAAA director search is on hold until a scientific review board reports back on whether to merge the institute with NIDA.) to Did you compose a song for your first day? (Collins jokingly replied that the idea was “considered and rejected by those whose judgment is better than mine. I was considering it, but they thought it was undignified, but at some future time…”)

One reporter suggested that the fact that Collins plays guitar makes him (and therefore, NIH) more “relatable” to the public. How will he capitalize on it? Smiling, Collins said he intends to employ everything at his disposal in his commitment to greater openness and communication at NIH.

“I made a list of things I’d like to accomplish in the first 6 months,” he quipped, mentioning the prospect of engaging a younger generation of medical research intellects by using such “new media” tools as Twitter, “and this is on that list.” NIHRecord Icon











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