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NIH Buying Power Keeps Francis Collins up Nights

In an interview this week, National Institutes of Health director and Human Genome Project veteran Francis Collins opens up to Nature's Meredith Wadman on his four years leading the NIH as one-time windfalls from the American Recovery Act have withered into what he calls "about a 20 percent loss in buying power over the last ten years."

Collins says biomedical scientists are working in an "exhilarating" yet "paradoxical" time, with research "rocketing forward," even while success rates for NIH grant applications have sunk down to 17 percent and lower.

"A great many scientists, including those just starting out, are having trouble getting their ideas supported and getting increasingly frustrated. That is what wakes me up at night," Collins says.

On the brighter side, Collins highlights strides the NIH has made in the past term working with the pharmaceutical industry to identify "areas of mutual opportunity in the pre-competitive space" for the advancing field of genomic medicine, and in establishing the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences earlier this year.

"I am not so naive as to think that the new centre, with its rather modest budget, is going to swoop in and change everything overnight," he says. "[But] scientifically, it seemed as if the time had come to try to build on a deluge of basic science discoveries about the molecular basis of disease and speed up the process of bringing those forward to clinical benefit. That is what I think the public hopes for from the NIH."

At the same time, Collins says he is still "impatient."

"Although there are times when we can steer the ship in the direction of scientific opportunity, we also need to be sure that the investigators out there who have great ideas feel encouraged to send them to us and that they're going to get a fair review," he adds.

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