A previous version of this story said that Francis S. Collins is the longest-tenured director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins is the longest-tenured director since presidents began appointing them in 1971.
After more than 12 years directing the nation’s premier biomedical research center, Collins, a 71-year-old physician-geneticist, will return to his lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute, part of NIH. He is the longest-tenured head of the Bethesda, Md.-based NIH since presidents began selecting directors in 1971, serving through the Obama and Trump administrations and into the first year of the Biden presidency.
No decision has been made on an interim director, an NIH official said. In the midst of the pandemic, President Biden will nominate a new director who must be confirmed by the evenly divided Senate.
In a statement Tuesday, Biden called Collins “one of the most important scientists of our time.”
“Millions of people will never know Dr. Collins saved their lives,” the president said. “Countless researchers will aspire to follow in his footsteps.”
In an interview, Collins said he went on a retreat by himself in May to assess the pros and cons of stepping down, and eventually he concluded that this was the year to do it. He said he did not want to get too far into the Biden administration before making the move and was confident that NIH’s role in developing therapeutics, tests and vaccines for the coronavirus had reached “a pretty stable place.” NIH partnered with Moderna to produce a highly effective coronavirus vaccine with stunning speed.
“There comes a time where an institution like NIH really benefits from new vision, new leadership,” he said. “This was the right timing.”
A born-again Christian who wrote a book about reconciling science and religion, Collins came into his job in 2009 facing many questions — and some sharp criticism — about whether a man of faith should lead a data-driven research institution that includes world-renowned scientists among its 18,000 employees.
He will step down at a time when such questions have given way to the politicization of science and sometimes violent disagreement about even well-proven medical facts.
“Every issue, the polarization gets deeper and deeper, the tribes have formed their views, and it’s very hard to see how we step back from that,” he said.
Over the 12 years of Collins’s tenure, the NIH budget has risen from $30 billion to $41.3 billion, and support from Congress has mostly remained steady. He has appointed most of the current heads of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers.
Along the way, Collins, who still sometimes rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and breaks into song for occasions large and small, became one of the more public faces of science in the United States, especially as the pandemic continued. Collins plays an acoustic guitar decorated with a double-helix and sang the national anthem at Nationals Park in 2016.
“Francis Collins is a brilliant scientist and an amazing administrator, and a real humanist and a pretty good guitar player and singer, too,” said Eric Lander, Biden’s science adviser. Lander worked with Collins on the Human Genome Project, which finished identifying and mapping all 20,000 human genes in 2000.
“Time after time, Francis was able to bring a vision to his institute at NIH, and then the whole NIH, to see what the next challenges would be that the scientific community could rally around. It was a huge thing,” Lander said.
But early in Collins’s tenure, a deadly infection killed six people at the NIH Clinical Center, the hospital where patients come for cutting-edge treatments as part of clinical trials. In 2016, Collins was forced to replace the leadership of the Clinical Center after an independent review determined that patient safety had become “subservient to research demands.” And NIH has struggled to substantially add more people of color among the scientists who receive its grants.
NIH passes out about 80 percent of its money to researchers at academic institutions around the United States and internationally, spending about 20 percent for work conducted in its own labs.
“We have increased modestly the number of NIH grantees who are people of color, but it’s still well below” their proportion in the general population, Collins said. The NIH has done a better job of bringing women into leadership positions, he said. In 2019, Collins said he would no longer appear on all-male panels at scientific meetings.
James E.K. Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, said in an email that Collins’s “courageous apology for long-standing racial bias in awarding of NIH grants and the major initiatives he has launched at NIH to eliminate racial bias in biomedical research funding represent fitting capstones to his legacy as NIH director.”
Born in Staunton, Va., and home-schooled through the sixth grade, Collins became one of the world’s top genetic researchers, helping to discover the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis and neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes tumors to form in the spine and brain.
Under Collins, NIH launched ambitious projects that took advantage of the scientific expertise he was able to tap, his experience leading the genome project — which involved scientists in six nations — and the money at his command.
Those projects include the Cancer Moonshot championed by Vice President Joe Biden in 2016; a large initiative to study the human brain; the All of Us Research Program, which is enrolling 1 million Americans in a gigantic database to help examine a wide range of factors that affect health; a precision medicine project that would use the information from those research studies to better treat cancer and other diseases by targeting patients’ individual characteristics; a project to strengthen genomic research in Africa; and most recently an effort to understand long-haul covid-19 symptoms that plague 10 percent to 30 percent of people who develop the infection.
“As NIH director, you get to help coordinate that kind of high-risk, as well as high-reward, program,” Collins said.
Michael Eisen, a University of California at Berkeley genetics professor who has been critical of what he calls Collins’s “big science” approach to research, said in an email Tuesday that he is ready for a change of leadership at NIH.
Because of Collins’s emphasis on big collaborative groups, individual researchers “have no confidence that they can build a stable research career based on NIH funding,” said Eisen, who has previously called for Collins to be replaced. He said NIH has “done far too little to address this and Francis in particular has shown next to no leadership on the issue, or even recognition of it.”
The pandemic would thrust Collins into his most public role as a communicator, force him to accelerate scientific research with sometimes breathtaking results and deliver a few of the lowest moments of his career.
“He has a knack for taking very complex topics and breaking them down in a way that people can understand,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. “I think that’s very underappreciated in public health.
“I do think he is a force for good. And that he always leads with the data and the science and the facts and brings tremendous credibility to the public health arena.”
The NIH’s best-known triumph of the pandemic is its work with the company Moderna to develop in less than a year one of the three coronavirus vaccines used in the United States. The timeline and effectiveness of the vaccine were beyond what most thought possible when the effort began.
NIH also has worked with drug companies to develop therapeutics and at-home testing after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially botched the rollout of the U.S. coronavirus testing program.
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has known Collins for decades, now interacts with him every day as part of the pandemic response.
He said one of the most important contributions Collins made during the pandemic was his presence on Saturday morning calls with pharmaceutical companies, in an effort to persuade them to recruit Black and Hispanic people into vaccine trials.
“That is extremely noteworthy — that the director of NIH would join me and my programmatic colleagues on the nuts and bolts of what you need to do to get more African Americans and Hispanics involved in the clinical trials. He didn’t have to do that.”
But as President Donald Trump veered from scientific fact in 2020, Collins considered stepping down. He came to Fauci’s office after hours on a winter evening to tell his friend that he was thinking of moving on.
“I said, ‘Please don’t do this,’ ” Fauci recalled in a conversation that Collins acknowledged in the interview. “I was pleading with him. For the good of NIH, he stayed on.”
Nor did Collins envision the culture war over vaccines and mask-wearing that has plagued the U.S. coronavirus response, a situation he called a “major heartbreak.”
“I did not dream that we would end up with fantastic, historic [vaccine test] results, and here we are in October 2021 with 70 million” people unvaccinated and hundreds of thousands dead “as a result of a culture war,” Collins said.
“I did not imagine that possible in the United States of America.”