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Vol. LXI, No. 20
October 2, 2009
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Collins Hears Constituents’ Needs at Town Hall Meeting

On the front page...

When it comes to back-to-school transitions, few faced higher expectations than NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, who on Sept. 9 addressed a Natcher auditorium filled with hundreds of constituents and stakeholders, each of whom will issue report cards on how well NIH meets his or her needs.

Continued...


  NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at town hall  
  NIH director Dr. Francis Collins at town hall  

In only his fourth week as director, Collins opened the first meeting of its size and kind with a story of his own conversion from a youngster who was sure that chemistry would be his life’s work, to an indifferent passage through some badly taught biology, which he regarded as “probably the most boring of all the sciences. In 10th grade we were asked to memorize the parts of a crayfish—I didn’t care about that.”

His decision to attend medical school surprised even himself, he admitted, but during his first year, in lectures given by a pediatrician who specialized in genetics, he found his calling.

The professor brought patients afflicted with genetic disorders, including sickle cell disease, neurofibromatosis and Down syndrome, to class and Collins realized that “one small glitch in a person’s genome could cause untold misery to the patient and family. That was 35 years ago. Never could I have contemplated being here today as NIH director. I am honored by it, and daunted by it and I’m going to need your help.”

An attendee from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill poses a question at the recent town hall.
An attendee from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill poses a question at the recent town hall.
Collins assured the gathering that he remains committed to basic, investigator-initiated research, which he called “the bedrock of NIH’s efforts,” and that his focus, notwithstanding his leadership of the Human Genome Project, is not entirely on Big Science. “Big Science can empower everyone,” he allowed. “It can put tools in the hands of investigators and enable them to go more quickly.”

Before describing his five major themes/opportunities for NIH, he cautioned, “Don’t keep score on particular examples.”

The five themes were the same handful he shared at a town hall meeting with employees on Aug. 17, his first day on the job: genomics and other high-throughput technology to understand fundamental biology and uncover causes of specific diseases; translating basic science into new and better treatments; putting science to work for the benefit of health care reform; more focus on global health; and reinvigorating and empowering the biomedical research community.

He also called the $10.4 billion addition to the NIH budget via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “an exceptional opportunity.” He expects stimulus money to allow the therapeutic targeting of 20-25 more cancer tumor types, in addition to advances in AIDS, H1N1 flu, autism, heart disease, health disparities and more.

Collins had time to answer more than a dozen inquiries from attendees lined up at the microphones, but offered an email address for additional inquiries
Collins had time to answer more than a dozen inquiries from attendees lined up at the microphones, but offered an email address for additional inquiries.
“I need your help,” he concluded, before opening the session to questions. “Science is not a 100-yard dash, it’s a marathon. I need your help in developing a common and consistent voice in support of biomedical research—stories of how research has changed lives for the better. We need to develop new and compelling ways to describe NIH research to decisionmakers. And we need to keep the communication channels wide open.”

He invited constituents to contact NIH at the email address NIH-LISTENS@nih.gov. “I promise I will pay close attention to it. We are a community…of hope.” Referring to his reputation as a musician who has now been elevated to lead the symphony, Collins noted, “Maybe I’m a little bit of a conductor here—I will try not to drop the baton.”

During a Q&A session that ran 20 minutes overtime, Collins fielded more than a dozen questions on such topics as enlarging the NIH budget, paying more attention to cultural issues as they affect health, pursuing more joint funding opportunities with private industry, recruiting a cadre of biostatisticians, reducing regulatory barriers and attending to the health needs of collegians. To those left at the mics as the session ended, Collins pledged, “I want to continue this communication. NIHRecord Icon

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