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Collins Begins Tenure as Director with Town Meeting

By Eddy Ball
September 2009

Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Collins called addressing health disparities "a high priority for NIH" and emphasized his support for the Intramural program. "I am one of you." (Photo courtesy of NIH)

Shortly after being sworn in on his first day at the helm of NIH, Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D. ( Exit NIEHS, spoke at an all-hands town meeting August 17 in the Main Auditorium at Natcher Auditorium on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. The meeting, which was webcast ( Exit NIEHS, gave Collins an opportunity to outline his vision for the future of NIH in broad strokes and single out the major challenges he sees ahead.

The ceremony opened with a standing ovation of thunderous applause for the new director. Deputy Director Raynard Kington, M.D., Ph.D., introduced Collins, describing him as an "international hero" and "brilliant choice" to serve as the agency's 16th director. He noted that Collins in his role as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute oversaw the human genome project, which was completed ahead of schedule and under its projected budget.

Collins was clearly on familiar turf as he talked about his long history with NIH. He called the organization "the most amazing, creative place to do biomedical research in the world [and] not just a collection of brilliant minds," but also "a brilliant collection of minds." He praised the NIH as more than a community or even a family, and midway in his talk he began referring to the "NIH tribe."

Collins cautioned his audience that he would speak generally and meant no one any slight by omission, focusing on five areas that he sees as important for the future of NIH:

  • The exploitation of high-throughput technologies to answer "questions we couldn't answer before," including the cancer genome atlas, complex disease and the microbiome.
  • Translating research into practicing, expediting drug development and exploring the potential of stem cells.
  • Putting science to work for the benefit of health care reform with such efforts as increased comparative effectiveness research, personalized medicine and pharmacogenomics.
  • Placing greater emphasis on global health and seizing the opportunity for the U.S. to become "a doctor to the world."
  • Striving to stabilize the biomedical research community with steady funding post-stimulus and to improve prospects for young researchers.

Along with presenting himself to the NIH "tribe" as a seasoned member of the scientific community dedicated to focusing "full energies on NIH," Collins reassured his audience, "I will step aside from other activities." He emphasized, "I don't want anyone to think that I have a religious agenda" for NIH. Decisions will be based on science, he said, comparing himself to the conductor of an "orchestra" of scientists with different research interests, as he committed himself to the total scientific interests of the agency.

"The world is waiting," he urged his listeners before taking questions. "Let us begin."

As director of the NIH, Collins will bear responsibility for more than 19,000 employees and a fiscal year 2009 budget of $30.6 billion. NIH supports more than 325,000 researchers at more than 3,100 institutions in the US and worldwide.

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