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  • NATURE PODCAST

Omnimagnets move non-magnetic objects every which way

Hear the latest from the world of science, with Benjamin Thompson and Nick Petrić Howe.

In this episode:

00:53 Pinpointing Viking presence in North America

It’s well-understood that Vikings went to North America around a thousand years ago. However, working out a precise date has proven difficult. Now, thanks to an ancient solar storm, researchers have been able to identify an individual year when Vikings were definitely living on the continent.

Research article: Kuitems et al.

14:57 Research Highlights

How shoulder muscles gave Pterosaurs an aerodynamic edge, and mysterious radio waves coming from near the centre of the Milky Way.

Research Highlight: How ancient reptiles were streamlined for flight

Research Highlight: A mysterious radio signal object is beaming radio waves into the Milky Way

17:45 Magnets move non-magnetic metals

Scientists have created an array of magnets capable of moving non-metallic objects in 6 dimensions. They hope their new approach could one day be used to clean up debris in space.

Research article: Pham et al.

News and Views: Non-magnetic objects induced to move by electromagnets

27:06 What Francis Collin’s retirement means for the US NIH

After 12 years, Francis Collins announced plans to retire from his role as Director of the United States National Institutes of Health. We discuss his legacy and what this means for the world’s biggest public funder of biomedical research.

Editorial: COVID, racism, China: three tests for the next NIH leader

News: Francis Collins to step down at NIH: scientists assess his legacy

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02863-2

Transcript

Hear the latest from the world of science, with Benjamin Thompson and Nick Petrić Howe.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, a solar storm pinpoints when Vikings lived in North America.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And moving non-magnetic materials with magnets. I’m Benjamin Thompson.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And I’m Nick Petrić Howe.

[Jingle]

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

First up on the show, reporter Geoff Marsh has been finding out how the Sun has helped precisely date Viking settlement in North America.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

In the 1200s AD, in a couple of texts called the Vinland sagas, epic stories were told of how the Vikings, also known as the Norse, had made the boat journey west from Iceland via Greenland to the Americas. But it wasn’t until the twentieth century that these potentially fictional accounts earned some credibility, as archaeologists found hard evidence of Vikings in Canada at a site called L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

Interviewee: Cat Jarman

The first presence of Scandinavians or Norse or Vikings in North America was really discovered in the 1960s, and that’s very exciting because it’s the furthest west that anybody has ever discovered a European settlement at that point in time.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

This is Cat Jarman, an archaeologist specialising in the Viking Age, currently at the Museum of the Viking Age at the University of Oslo.

Interviewee: Cat Jarman

But there’s been quite a lot of questions surrounding it, and so although we’ve been excited, people have tried to tie it very closely to the saga literature, still questions have remained, especially about the timing and the duration of that settlement.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

Unfortunately, the Vikings didn’t write down dates in the way we do today. Instead, they gave timings relevant to important events, like ‘this many winters after that famous battle’. Plus, the sagas were written down several hundred years later, after the Viking Age, and they’re thought to be at least partly fictional, meaning we can’t really take any of the dates at face value unless they’re independently verified. So, researchers have often looked for other clues as to the timing of historical events. In the twentieth century, this pursuit was revolutionised by the introduction of radiocarbon dating.

Interviewee: Mike Dee

Radiocarbon is a radioactive form of carbon, and it decays away with a given half-life from the moment it’s formed.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

This is Mike Dee from the Centre for Isotope Research at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Interviewee: Mike Dee

But luckily, it’s formed continuously in the atmosphere, and it’s formed because the Earth is constantly being bombarded by particles from space, from all different directions actually, and it would basically decay away and perhaps disappear in the atmosphere if it weren’t for the fact that it becomes part of carbon dioxide and is taken up by plants, just like ordinary carbon dioxide, through photosynthesis. And so therefore it gets built into the structure of plants. So, what you need to do is find some organic tissue from the past and measure the amount of radiocarbon in it, and you can trace back up the sort of decay curve and work out approximately how long ago it was when that organism was living.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

Which is all well and good, but it’s just not that accurate. But today in Nature, we’re publishing a paper which details a new technique which manages to give radiocarbon dating a sort of turbo boost in terms of its resolution, allowing scientists to resolve dates to the single year.

Interviewee: Mike Dee

And this has actually only arisen because in the last nine years officially we in the community have realised that there are moments in time over the last thousands of years when there was a particular signal, particularly actually a little spike in production in the atmosphere, and we think that that was the result of major storms on the Sun, the likes of which nobody has witnessed in modern times. Massive storms like huge solar flares that would throw out all these particles and bombard the Earth and caused a sudden rise in production.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

What’s your sort of reference scale? How do we know when these big events took place?

Interviewee: Mike Dee

It just turns out that tree rings, when they build in that carbon signal, it doesn’t move across the different tree rings. It stays locked into the year in which that particular tree ring was laid down. And because, as you know from when you’re a kid or whatever, you can count the number of rings in the cross section of a tree and you can work out how old it was when it died, there is a whole science called dendrochronology, and you have long, long, therefore, records, of these tree rings in these dendrochronological archives, in which you know exactly what year each of those tree rings grew. For example, 993 AD, which is the sort of spike that our work concerns, there is this jump in production, which we think is caused by one of these events, and if you go to these archives, all around the world, and there’s like 30 or 40 all around the world, in that exact same growth ring, in that exact same year, you will see this jump.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

I would like to know whether your technique or the question about Vikings – what came first? Presumably, the technique came first and then you realised, well, that could be quite interesting for Vikings?

Interviewee: Mike Dee

So, these events, these sudden upsurges were really more of interest to solar physicists and astronomers and so on, in the beginning, and we knew that there was one in the eighth century AD and we knew that there was one in the tenth century AD, towards the end of it. And at the time, I was thinking what chronological puzzles or challenges can we examine that we might be able to really resolve with this method, and I started to think about the Viking voyages. The Vikings also used a lot of wood, which is very handy for our work. And I thought, well, here’s a real chance because they might have some wood left over. We might be able to get this really pinned down to the exact year.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

Once Mike and his colleagues had decided a target for their new technique, they needed some organic material that could be tied to the Vikings. Luckily, a retired archaeologist, Birgitta Wallace, who’d been active since the 70s at the famous Viking site L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, had had the foresight to keep a load of materials in a freezer for future research. So, Mike’s colleague, Margot Kuitems, gave her a visit.

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

And I went there and she was very helpful, and I opened the freezer and I remember I said, ‘It’s a gold mine.’

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

So, what were they? Were they bits of Viking longboat or house? What were the bits of timber?

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Yeah, so, in that sense, it doesn’t sound like a gold mine at all to many people, probably, because they are actually just bits of wood. So, there were wood chips, which just came off during maybe boat repairs or building activities, and actually there was kind of good news because for this method, it was really important that we had the bark edge preserved, so the outer layers. And if you have, for instance, a statue or another artefact, then often the outer bits are chopped off, and also they are more precious and people won’t allow you to take samples.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

So, you opened this fridge and whereas probably anyone else in the world will have opened this fridge and seen these frozen sort of random blocks of wood and probably closed it again, for you it was a gold mine.

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Yes.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

Can you confidently link this wood to the Norse people and not the Indigenous North Americans?

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Because they all show signs actually of distinctive marks that are made by metal tools, and metal tools were not used at the time by the Indigenous American people living in the area.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

How lucky that the Viking carpenters didn’t use their offcuts for a nice warm fire.

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Exactly, yes.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

And as you say, you want bits of wood that have enough growth rings but also that extend right the way to the edge of the tree so that you can work out exactly how old it was.

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Yes, so I brought it with me to the Netherlands, to the lab, and over there I investigated the bits of wood under a microscope.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

So then you separate out the rings and then you’re looking for these upsurges of carbon-14, aren’t you, these indicators of a solar particle event? How do you spot those? Presumably, you can’t see those under the microscope?

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

That’s really done by mass spectrometry. Then you get the radiocarbon concentration of the past for each year. And then in one of the samples, finally we found the upsurge in the 29th growth ring counted from the bark edge.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

So, you told us that we know that this big cosmic burst of particles happened in the year 993, and you counted the tree rings, so what year can you pinpoint Scandinavians being there in Newfoundland?

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Exactly in the year 1021. And even we could work out sometimes what the cutting season was.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

Wow, how did you do that?

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Well, you can differentiate between early wood and late wood. So, the wood that was growing in the spring or autumn, for instance, you can see that in, for instance, the discolouration of the wood, the wider cells. Yeah, it has to do with the thickness of the cells.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

What is it like holding these bits of wood and knowing that there was a Viking chopping this tree down in the spring of the year 1021?

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Exactly, 1,000 years ago this year.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

Oh, wow, I didn’t think about that. It’s exactly a millennium ago, isn’t it?

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

It is, yeah. The 1,000 year anniversary this year. Yes.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

How apt that the paper is being published in Nature exactly 1,000 years after this ancient woodcutter.

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Yes, it’s like we waited with publication, for instance, for this year, but it was…

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

A very happy accident?

Interviewee: Margot Kuitems

Exactly, yes.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

So, for an archaeologist like you, Cat, what does it mean then to have this kind of very specific year in which the Norse people were definitely in this place in Newfoundland?

Interviewee: Cat Jarman

I think it’s extremely exciting actually because with the presence in North America of these Viking settlers, the dating really has been the big issue because the dates that we’ve had so far actually span pretty much the entire Viking Age, so a period of over 300 years, and that’s not useful to anyone. And that dating really is important to us because it means that we can then relate it to settlement elsewhere. So, actually, to have something that can pin it down to a single year, which is something that we never really get from any site normally, is really quite spectacular. So, you go from this completely vague idea that it happens at some point in the Viking Age to something so specific.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

So, of course, this specific year that we got from these results tells us that they definitely were there at that year, but I suppose it doesn’t tell us when they got there. They could have been there for a while before they cut down that particular tree.

Interviewee: Cat Jarman

Yeah, absolutely, so that is the other question that’s unanswered: how long did they stay for? And certainly the saga literature suggests it could be up to I think something like seven years. But we need to think of that really more as sort of historical fiction than anything, than real written evidence. So, we don’t know that yet, and the fact that they’re so close together could just suggest that this was literally just a seasonal thing. But I think it does open up for dating more artefacts. This is only a very small sample, but if the method works that well on these objects then maybe we could find more things and we can understand more about that duration. So, it’s both exciting because of what it’s telling us right now but I think also the promise it has for the future.

Interviewer: Geoff Marsh

Finally, I wanted to hear from Mike what he saw ahead for this new dating technique. So, this paper has been a really nice illustration, like a sort of proof of concept of this technique. Of course, as you mentioned, these big solar events are vanishingly rare, aren’t they? Is there any hope that the technique could get more sensitive and that smaller fluctuations that there are perhaps more of would work?

Interviewee: Mike Dee

So, we would normally measure our references as averages of ten rings because from this ten to the next then to the next ten, it’s not going to change very much, let’s get an average. All of a sudden, there was a rush for measuring every single year, and that’s what we’ve been doing in the last seven or eight years, is measuring every single tree ring, and now we do see little ups and downs that are reproducible all over the world. You do see, perhaps not as dramatic as these great, big jumps, but other sort of imprints on the record that come from maybe smaller solar events, maybe other things that are also unique time markers. So, either maybe we’ll be trying to find more of these big enough events that we can use as hooks to hook parts of floating chronologies and individual events on every few hundred years or every millennium, or we’ll start to be able to really recognise very small variations in the record, and perhaps we’ll be able to date a lot of stuff to the year, particularly if we have a sequence of dates, which is what you get with tree rings. We might be able to date lots and lots of artefacts to the exact year, so who knows, actually, where we’ll be in 10 or 15 years from now.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

That podcast piece was produced by Geoff Marsh. In it, he spoke to Mike Dee and Margot Kuitems from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He also spoke to Cat Jarman from the Museum of the Viking Age at the University of Oslo. To find out more about when Vikings crossed the Atlantic, check out the paper in the show notes.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Coming up, we’ll be hearing how researchers have managed to freely move non-magnetic objects with magnets, and we’ll be discussing the news that Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, is stepping down. Right now, though, it’s time for the Research Highlights, brought to you this week by Noah Baker.

[Jingle]

Noah Baker

Pterosaurs were the first vertebrates to fly, ruling the skies for more than 160 million years during the time of the dinosaurs. Now, a beautifully preserved fossil has revealed a pterosaurian trick for reducing drag during flight: a curved aerodynamic profile courtesy of muscles connecting the wings to the neck. The fossil from southern Germany has bones arranged as they would have been when the animal was alive and crucially contains preserved soft tissue. The researchers illuminated the specimen with violet laser light, which excited mineralised soft-tissue atoms. These minerals glowed pink, revealing minute structural details around the base of the neck, the shoulders and the upper arms. Bats use fur to smooth the connections between their wings and bodies; birds use feathers. Pterosaurs apparently used muscle — possibly including the trapezius and deltoid muscles. This would ease airflow over the junction and might have even had the added advantage of providing fine wing control. The finding will probably influence how pterosaurs are depicted in reconstructions. Expect more sloped shoulders in the future. Read more in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

[Jingle]

Noah Baker

A mysterious object is beaming radio waves into the Milky Way. Astronomers have detected an intermittent source of radio waves near the centre of the Galaxy that doesn’t seem to fit the profile of any known astrophysical phenomenon. The unusual emissions were first spotted in January 2020 by the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder. The array of 36 parabolic dishes had started its systematic survey of the Milky Way’s centre in 2019. The mysterious source, dubbed – catchy name alert – ASKAP J173608.2—321635, stayed bright for about a week and then vanished. When the pathfinder array looked again, sometimes it was on, other times it was off. But the researchers also spotted the source with the MeerKAT array in South Africa. The things that’s got them scratching their heads is that several familiar explanations don’t seem plausible. For example, unusual activity from a red dwarf star would produce radio waves but would also emit infrared and visible radiation. And a highly magnetic type of neutron star called a magnetar could also release radio waves but probably X-rays too, and no such counterpart emissions have been seen. Read more in the Astrophysical Journal.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Moving things around with magnets is pretty easy. There’s a paperclip here in front of me that I could happily pick up or drag around the desk with a magnet, for example. But what about non-magnetic objects? Well, it turns out it’s possible to move them around with magnets too. Here’s Jake Abbott from the University of Utah, who’s got a paper out about it in Nature this week.

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

Yeah, so it turns out any material that is electrically conductive. So, we usually think of metals at that point. When you have a time-changing magnetic field, so not a static magnetic field but one that’s literally changing in time, and that could be that it’s growing or shrinking or, in my case, spinning, it induces electric fields in space. And if there’s electrically conductive objects in that space, then little eddy currents will be generated in that metal. So, it’s literally swirling motion of electrons that are already in the metal, but the changing magnetic fields causes them to move, and then those little swirling currents act like little, mini electromagnets. So, that little electromagnet, that swirling current, will react against the magnetic field and generate forces and torques.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And you can use this then to attract or repel an object, right?

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

Yeah, it turns out that it’s actually quite difficult to attract, so what we learned we can do is we can push things away, we can kind of push things sideways, and then we can spin things. And you can put them all together and make things move the way you want.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So, I will say that this idea isn’t necessarily new and this technique has been demonstrated for a few hundred years.

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

So, people have known about eddy current generation for a long time. You can see all sorts of cool YouTube videos. One of my favourite ones is someone takes a big block of aluminium and they put it in an MRI scanner, these huge magnetic devices that your whole body slides into, and if you’re very far away from the MRI scanner and you tip this block, it tips over, whack. But if you set it near the MRI scanner, this big, heavy block of aluminium just falls just gently to the ground, and that’s these eddy currents slowing down that motion. So, that’s the generation of force right there, so people know about these things. It’s used in separation of metals in recycling. So, if you have a spinning magnetic, any metallic objects will get a little kick from this and they’ll get thrown a little farther than all of the non-metallic objects, and so you can actually sort things into two different bins this way.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So, in scenarios like this then, sorting non-metallic metals from other trash, that’s kind of just pushing in a 2D plane, and you really wanted to expand it out into three dimensions, something that people have been looking at for a while. Why did you want to get into that extra dimension?

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

So, first of all, when we say 3D, those of us who are engineers, we think in terms of 6D because, really, you think about three dimensions in position, so sort of left, right, up, down, forward, backward, but you also have three degrees of freedom in orientation. The reason we want to do 6D is because that’s how manipulation works. When you pick up a glass and wash it, you grab it with your hand and you reposition it in x, y, z space, but you also orient it so that you can get the brush in to the side. So, manipulation is a six dimensional thing, so if you want to start talking about manipulating objects, you have to think in 6D.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And so, you’ve been working to try and solve this puzzle then of how to move a non-magnetic object with a magnet in six dimensions. Can you give me a sense of what that looks like?

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

So, we do a bunch of experiments in numerical simulations first, before we ever build any hardware. But our physical experiment is, we have a fish tank and floating on top of that fish tank we built a raft, just a plastic raft. And in that raft we have a copper ball, and that’s actually the object we’re manipulating. And then we have four electromagnets. These electromagnets are another invention that came out of my lab – we call it an omnimagnet. It looks like a cube but it’s actually three electromagnets each pointing in orthogonal directions. And so, by controlling the three currents to this magnet, you can make a magnetic field that can be pointed in any direction and we can control its strength also. And so, each of these electromagnets is creating a rotating magnetic field, and we turn one on for a second, and then we turn another one on for a second, and spin, spin, spin, spin, and we do this in a coordinated fashion, and every time we do this, each one of these spinning omnimagnets gives a little nudge to this copper sphere, so it’s giving a force and it’s giving a torque. In our fish tank, we can only move in two degrees of freedom in position, just on a horizontal surface and then one degree of freedom in rotation, if you imagine the raft rotating about the vertical axis. But our numerical simulation has the full six degrees of freedom manipulation, so we can understand how things would move more generally.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And a question I have to ask is why are you doing this in a fish tank?

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

Well, fundamentally, these forces are fairly weak because these metals are not magnetic. We’re using a completely different set of physics. And so because they’re weak, it’s most applicable to manipulation in space, where you’re not fighting against gravity, you’re not fighting against the weight of that copper ball, and so we really need to be simulating microgravity on Earth, and there’s different ways and they all have limits. We’ve gone with a fish tank approach, and you’re using the buoyancy of water to sort of hold the object up as you’re manipulating it.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And microgravity and space then does seem like a key potential avenue for this research. What is it about this six-dimensional movement then that is so applicable in this environment.

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

So, there’s this big problem of space debris, largely made up of non-magnetic metals. You see a lot of aluminium, but other metals like titanium, and that junk, once it crashes into the space station or a space shuttle or other junk, it fragments and it can be very dangerous and very destructive. And some of that junk might be spinning rapidly, so if you want to, let’s say, reach out and grab it with a traditional robotic manipulator, you first have to get it to stop spinning so rapidly because if you try and reach out and grab it you’ll just break your robot hand. If it’s an object that you want to repair, it’s not that different from my example of washing your cup in the sink. You have to be able to grab an object and bring it to you and orient it in a way that lets you access the thing you want to access, and that’s a manipulation problem.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And so, you’re hoping then that this system could be used then to slow spins, to bring in space junk, to clean it up. I mean, is what you’re describing a tractor beam, Jake?

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

Well, that’s so funny that you would say that. I’ve looked into this a little bit. The one thing about the tractor beam from science fiction is they say it’s a beam that you can point at an object, but you basically don’t affect objects next to it, and that’s not the case with us. So, with our method, let’s say you had three different pieces of junk that were all kind of floating around in a cloud, they would all respond to this field that we’re applying. I think you can make an argument that for the applications we’re interested in, that’s actually a benefit. There’s lots of little pieces of metal. You would like to be able to act on them collectively and move them all together, bring them all towards you together. But like I said, we found that it’s very difficult to attract objects. You can either push them away or push them laterally, but we’re already working on ways that by using multiple magnets, we can bring objects toward us.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

I do have to say, Jake, that it is a long way from the fish tank where you are essentially manipulating a small copper sphere to the full space situation. What sort of challenges do you need to overcome because the forces that you’re generating at the moment are quite weak, for example.

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

Even in the future when we’ve got this figured out and it turns out it actually is a useful technology, you will never be doing this over a long distance. This is something that you’re going to have to get up relatively close to an object in order to sort of bring it in to you. The other thing, we’re manipulating spheres, and the hope is that a sphere is sort of a good first approximation of other geometries, other hunks of material that aren’t perfect spheres but a sphere is just an approximation of it. So, if you think about like maybe some of the things that we might want to manipulate that are thin cylinders, we still don’t fully understand those objects.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

People have been trying to crack this nut for a while, from what I understand, Jake. How excited were you when you actually saw it working in the lab?

Interviewee: Jake Abbott

The research I’ve been doing for over a decade now, using magnetic fields to manipulate objects without touching them, every single advancement has seemed like magic when it actually happens, every single one. In a way, this maybe felt the most magical, in that it seemed like the hardest hill to climb because these metals aren’t magnetic. But I will say, by the time we actually did the manipulation, I was nearly 100% confident it would work because at that point we had already extensively modelled the forces and torques that we can generate on these objects. And that’s the one thing about when you understand how this stuff works, it takes a little of the magic away I guess.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

That was Jake Abbott from the University of Utah in the US. You can find a link to his paper over in the show notes.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Finally on the show, Francis Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, has announced he’ll step down from the role at the end of the year. The NIH is the world’s public biggest funder of biomedical research, and so many scientists will be wondering: what happens now? To find out, I’ve got two Nature reporters with me. Hello both, why don’t you introduce yourselves?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Hi, I’m Alex Witze. I’m a correspondent for Nature based in Colorado, and among my beats I cover science policy and science advice from the government.

Interviewee: Nidhi Subbaraman

Hi, I’m Nidhi Subbaraman. I’m based in Washington DC and I cover biomedical research and policy issues, including the moves of the NIH.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Well, thank you both for joining me. Now, probably a good place to start is to talk a little bit about Collins himself. He’s steered the agency for 12 years. What sort of legacy is he leaving behind?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Oh, Francis Collins is pretty much a legend in US science. He is a force of nature. He has done a lot of high profile initiatives. I mean, of course, before he joined the NIH, he ran the Human Genome Project. He organised a lot of NIH’s big initiatives, such as the BRAIN initiative in neuroscience. He’s been very successful, both with politicians and with the public, at arguing for basic biomedical research. His Christianity is a big part of his identity, and so when he has been working, for instance, with Congress on stickier ethical issues like fetal tissue research, he has a man of faith credentials, which has been very effective for him in arguing for such research.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

I mean, it sounds like he’s leaving quite big shoes to fill, and also, the past few years, to say they’ve been tumultuous would probably be an understatement. How has Collins manoeuvred through things like the pandemic and the Trump presidency?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

I would say, all things considered, Collins navigated the waters pretty well. In the pandemic, Collins was very much out there, front and centre, in a lot of the public response to the pandemic. Now, the NIH’s role, their lane as it were, is to dole out funding for basic research. But Collins was also out there a lot on TV talking about issues like face masks and transmission, which normally fall to other agencies like the CDC. But because he’s a big communicator, he was out there a lot. So, he became a target for a lot of the politicisation that’s happened here in the States. There’s been a lot of public hatred because of his pandemic response, even as he’s led the agency in science.

Interviewee: Nidhi Subbaraman

One thing that Anthony Fauci told me was it was great to have Collins and his sort of stable and seasoned approach in the face of the political and public blowback that all science agencies were getting, and public health and biomedical agencies in particular. Fauci told me that he had a meeting with Dr Collins, one time when he was thinking of retiring during the Trump administration, and sort of talked him out of it and said sort of we need you here, and his retirement has been some years in the making from what I understand.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

So, he is stepping down now. Is that because he feels secure that his legacy will be ensured?

Interviewee: Nidhi Subbaraman

Collins’ public line so far was that it was time for someone else to take on the agency, and one thing he was mindful of was if his departure would also upset the pandemic response and the pace of things. And he says, in addition to whatever else he may be thinking inside his head, at the moment he felt like the pandemic response was pretty secure and would not be shook if he stepped down.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

And well, that brings us neatly on to who might be the successor. But before we think about that, what sort of challenges might they face?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Whoever steps into this job, I mean, it is a tough job, even not during the pandemic, so the person who comes in needs to, first of all, have the scientific credentials to be well respected in the scientific community. They also have to be really great at administration, which sounds super boring. And then you have to figure out how to lead us out of the pandemic, right? We’re at this stage in the pandemic where how the federal government responds is important, and what can the NIH do to better prepare us for the next one? And then, of course, there’s the bigger questions that are facing all agencies as well, like systemic racism in the US, which has become very much to the fore since George Floyd’s murder last year. The NIH has long been working on diversity, equity and inclusion issues in its workforce and its grantees, but they have not perhaps moved as quickly as many would like, so there’s so much work to be done in terms of trying to fund equitably.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

And so, the director of the NIH works closely with the president as well, so do we know much about what Biden’s priorities are for the agency?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Yeah, Biden has said quite a few things about his approach towards science and technology that people are still sort of trying to read the tea leaves on what that might mean for the next NIH director. So, Biden has a lot of sort of big science, big government priorities. There’s always a theme of sort of restoring US dominance in science and technology. I’m not sure the US has lost it, but there’s very much a big government in support of society theme in the Biden administration, which is sort of a notable change from the Trump administration, which worked a lot to dismantle a lot of sort of science structure within the government. In terms of what that means for the next NIH director, well, Biden really loves biomedical research. He has a personal connection with cancer. He’s lost family members to cancer. In fact, he drove a cancer moonshot initiative when he was vice-president under Obama. So, we can pretty much guarantee that whoever gets that NIH job is going to hear from Joe Biden a lot, probably asking what cures are coming down the pike, probably asking how to translate research discoveries into treatments and cures much more dramatically.

Interviewee: Nidhi Subbaraman

Yeah, the other thing that Biden administration has been pushing is something called ARPA-H, which is envisioned as sort of a new institute which has a different flavour from the existing structures at NIH. And it’s thought of as a rapid development towards biomedical results research model, something like the DARPA, which the Department of Defence already has underway. The thinking is that it would dwell within the NIH, but there have been discussions about whether it is the best agency to host it, and it remains to be seen, despite Biden’s grand plans for it, how it will be funded, by lawmakers in the US.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

And so, I guess my final question is, and we may be entering sort of speculation territory a little bit here, do we have any clues as to who might take up the role?

Interviewee: Alex Witze

So, it’s definitely a parlour game in Washington right now, tossing names around. The one thing I will say that I think pretty much everyone agrees is that the next director for the NIH needs to not be a white man. So, in the history of the NIH, there has been one woman director and there have been no directors who were not white by the US definition. So, of all the names that get tossed around these days, it’s a much more diverse pool, and I think that’s crucial.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Well, I’m sure Nature will be keeping a close eye on the potential successors and who is picked to lead the NIH. But for now, thank you both for joining me.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Thanks, Nick.

Interviewee: Nidhi Subbaraman

Thank you.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And listeners, there’s an editorial in Nature this week. We’ll pop a link to that, along with a news story written by Nidhi, in the show notes.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And that’s all for this week’s show. But as always, you can reach us on Twitter. We’re @NaturePodcast. Or you can send us an email. We’re podcast@nature.com. I’m Benjamin Thompson.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And I’m Nick Petrić Howe. Thanks for listening.

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