Top Geneticist Plans To Leave Job at NIH

Francis S. Collins said he has no quarrel with the NIH.
Francis S. Collins said he has no quarrel with the NIH. (Paul Franz - Ap Photo/paul Franz)
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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Francis S. Collins, who for more than a decade has overseen virtually every major federal research initiative in the fast-paced field of genetic science, will step down as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, effective Aug. 1.

Collins, 58, who took over the institute in 1993 and guided the massive Human Genome Project to completion in 2003, said he has a book project in mind but no other immediate plans. He said he will head into "the white space of unemployment," where he can contemplate his options without brushing up against federal conflict-of-interest rules.

"I am not leaving because of any problems or disagreements with NIH leadership," Collins said, echoing what NIH insiders conveyed privately. While he acknowledged that budgetary belt-tightening in recent years has been "deeply troublesome," he emphasized that money is not a factor.

His departure was made easier, he said, by the president's signing into law last week a ban on most kinds of genetic bias, a cause Collins had championed tirelessly -- and some thought quixotically -- for more than a dozen years.

Collins said he will write a book about the nascent revolution in personal genomics, which promises to bring individualized medical treatments but has also given rise to a largely unregulated market in genetic tests of questionable usefulness. NIH sources said it would be impossible for Collins to speak his mind in such a book while serving as institute director. (A book he wrote in 2006 about his life as a scientist and born-again Christian was deemed by government ethics officials to be enough afield of his duties to be publishable while he remained at NIH.)

Collins said he will also explore options in the private and public sectors. Asked whether he would consider becoming director of the NIH if that position were to open, he said that the NIH is "the most wonderful government organization that I can possibly imagine."

The institute's deputy director, Alan E. Guttmacher, will lead while a replacement is sought.

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