Published online 9 July 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.658


Francis Collins named as NIH chief

Obama nominates prominent geneticist as agency director.

Francis Collins.Francis Collins.Wikimedia Commons

President Barack Obama on 8 July nominated physician and geneticist Francis Collins as the next director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Collins, 59, steered the public effort to sequence the human genome, racing the privately-funded team spearheaded by J. Craig Venter to a history-making tie in 2000, when both teams were lauded at the White House for completion of a 'rough draft' of the genome. For 15 years, until last year, he oversaw the NIH's genomics efforts, directing the National Center for Human Genome Research in Bethesda, Maryland, which in 1997 became the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

"He's a superb choice for an NIH director. He brings extraordinary scientific depth, medical breadth and an ability to get people to collaborate on ambitious projects," says Eric Lander, the co-chair of the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology and the founding director of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"He also plays a mean folk guitar and can get people to sing together, which is not irrelevant to the job of NIH director," adds Lander, who worked closely with Collins on the sequencing of the human genome.

Home schooled

Collins, who was home-schooled on a farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, trained as a chemist at Yale University and later spent nine years as a faculty member at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. There, he was a co-discoverer of the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis (see 'Human genetics: One gene, twenty years'). Collins' lab, now at NHGRI, has also identified causative genes for neurofibromatosis, Huntington's disease and adult onset type 2 diabetes.

“There have been some issues about his religious beliefs, but as far as I am concerned he is a scientist's scientist.”

Robert Goldman
Northwestern University Medical School

Robert Goldman, the chairman of the department of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, Illinois, has been collaborating with Collins for five years on a project involving Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, a rare disease of premature ageing.

"He's keenly interested in basic science," says Goldman. "That's very, very important. I have found him to be an outstanding colleague and collaborator."

Collins is also known as a communicator who can translate complex science into publicly-accessible language without oversimplifying and without using jargon — a skill that will be important on Capitol Hill, where the NIH's purse-strings are held.

Beyond belief

Collins has garnered attention — and criticism from some scientists — for his strong spiritual beliefs, which he articulated in his 2006 book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. "Science is not the only way of knowing," Collins writes towards the end of the book. "The spiritual worldview provides another way of finding truth. Scientists who deny this would be well advised to consider the limits of their own tools."

"There have been some issues about his religious beliefs, but as far as I am concerned he is a scientist's scientist," says Goldman.


Collins would replace acting director Raynard Kington, who took charge of the US$30-billion agency after Elias Zerhouni, the former director, left last October. Kington has directed the agency during an eventful time that has seen Congress direct $10 billion in economic stimulus funding to the NIH. He also oversaw the drafting and finalizing of guidelines for broadened federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell research.

The nomination of Collins must now win the approval of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat, Massachusetts.) Kennedy has called the choice of Collins "inspired" and said he would work to see that the nomination is approved "without delay". 


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  • #60598

    Dr. Francis Collins: the ultimate NIH insider’s appointment by NIH lobbying from inside the West Wing. Who was doing the lobbying behind the scenes for the Dr. Francis Collins appointment? The obvious possibilities: either the NIH itself or the religious right. To clear away the smoke and mirrors, there is a direct NIH connection to the West Wing; the White House chief of staff R. E. and his brother head of the Bioethics NIH I. E. I. E. is also executive chair of the NIH Assembly of Scientists (AOS). JustinI

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