Francis Collins' confirmation as the new director of the National Institutes of Health may have come as a somewhat anticlimactic Congressional aside in a summer filled with stormy political debates, but his subsequent address at an all-hands NIH meeting was anything but.
On August 17, Collins took the floor for the first time as NIH director, alternately praising the institutes, reassuring people who worried about his potential bias toward genomics, and fretting about funding. He began his address by saying, "Well, it's great to be home again. That's what this feels like for me." He spent some time highlighting a range of promising research at NIH, which, as an institution, "represents everything that is awesome and wonderful about biomedical research."
One of the concerns raised about Collins as NIH director was his comfort level with large, collaborative science. To quell those worries, he told his new employees, "The mainstay of NIH, both intramural and extramural, will be the creativity of individual investigators. Those who fear that this guy who used to direct the genome institute may only be interested in supporting big science need look no further for reassurance than the character of the NHGRI intramural program which I was asked to found in 1993."
He also used the meeting as an opportunity to lay out five major themes he has in mind for NIH. To wit: applying high-throughput technologies to find the cause of specific disease states; translation, including developing "diagnostics and preventive strategies and therapeutics for diseases we treat poorly"; "putting science to work for the benefit of healthcare reform," which includes comparative effectiveness research and more tailored approaches to medicine; an increased focus on global health; and securing stable, reliable funding levels.
On that last point, the man who's known in the community as an incurable optimist acknowledged that even his sunny attitude is challenged by the current funding situation. "What is going to happen to the resource support of this amazing organization when the stimulus money runs out?" he asked. "The feast or famine scenario is incredibly destructive to the enterprise and it places our country at a disadvantage over other countries that are on very strong growth trajectory."