Francis Collins, MD, the longtime director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the federal agency that is the largest funding source for basic biomedical research in the United States — has announced that he will step down from the role at the end of 2021 after 12 years on the job, according to a news release from the agency.
As NIH director, Collins oversees the operations of the agency as a whole, which also comprises individual institutes — including the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disorders (NIDDK) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), to name two examples. Collins is well known and respected for advocating for — and winning — funding for the NIH from Congress, gaining broad bipartisan support for the agency’s mission during his tenure as director. During this time, the NIH’s budget grew from about $30 billion in 2009 to $41.3 billion in 2021. This increased funding, many people in the scientific community believe, has accelerated research that led to numerous breakthrough discoveries and cutting-edge treatments in different areas of medicine.
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“It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade,” said Collins in the news release. “I am proud of all we’ve accomplished. 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. 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 sworn in as NIH director in 2009
Collins was appointed as NIH director by President Barack Obama in 2009 and overwhelmingly confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He was asked to stay on in his role by both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden when each took office as president. Before his tenure as NIH director, Collins was director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) from 1993 to 2008. As director of the NHGRI, Collins led the international Human Genome Project, which achieved its goal of sequencing the human genome — the entirety of human DNA, the “instruction book” for all human traits and functions — in April 2003.
A few of the many programs and initiatives that Collins has championed at the NIH include the All of Us Research Program, which has enrolled nearly 1 million people and aims to use health data to tailor treatments to each person’s individual genetic makeup, environment, and lifestyle. The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative aims to develop new technologies to understand neuronal networks of the brain, to see what’s going wrong in Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, psychosis, and other brain disorders. And the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative aims to counter the opioid epidemic by improving treatments for both addiction and opioid overdoses, and by exploring ways to improve pain management.
After stepping down as NIH director, Collins will stay on as leader of his research laboratory at the NHGRI, with the mission of “pursuing genomics, epigenomics and single cell biology to understand the causes and means of prevention for type 2 diabetes,” along with developing new genetic therapies for other health conditions.