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Francis Collins steps down as NIH director after 12 years

20 December 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1126

Former head of the Human Genome Project, physician and geneticist, Dr Francis Collins has resigned from his role of the head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.

Collins has spent more than 12 years heading the NIH, the world's biggest public funder of biomedical research. He will now return to run his laboratory full-time in the National Human Genome Research Institute, his first position in the NIH, which he led from 1993-2008. His two main projects are studying the genomics and epigenomics of type 2 diabetes and progeria, a rare disease that causes premature ageing.

'I did not expect to remain as NIH director for three presidents' he said to the journal JAMA. 'Twelve years is a long time, and I really wanted to be sure that I was not outlasting my shelf life here. I did a retreat on my own on a weekend at the end of May to try to figure out the right thing to do. I think scientific organisations need new leadership on a regular basis with new vision, and this was getting to be a pretty long haul.'

His proudest achievements in the role were the creation of the BRAIN Initiative, funding projects that map neural circuits in different organisms; the Precision Medicine Initiative that founded the largest ever longitudinal cohort study of health and disease called All of Us; and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences that focuses on translating basic science to clinical advances. In addition, he is proud of the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines by the scientific community.

Recently, Collins has focused on addressing structural racism through the group UNITE, misinformation in science and the politicisation of science. 

Collins supports the formation of a new NIH agency – the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health – that aims to accelerate research by investing significant funds in high-risk projects and encouraging multiple collaborators. He encourages the next NIH director to invest time in interacting with Congress, becoming an expert of multiple areas and work with a team of bright, smart and visionary individuals.

Lawrence Tabak, the principal deputy director of the NIH, will serve as the acting director from 20 December 2021 until a suitable candidate is found. Tabak, a dentist and biochemist, supervises a laboratory at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research that investigates glycoprotein. According to Collins, Tabak 'has been my right arm for pretty much my entire time as NIH director'. 

After 12 years, NIH director Francis S Collins seeks his next chapter
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NIH director Francis Collins to hand reins to acting director Lawrence Tabak on 20 December
Science |  9 December 2021
Science misinformation alarms Francis Collins as he leaves top NIH job
Nature |  20 December 2021
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