President Obama has nominated geneticist Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins, a long-serving career scientist at NIH who retired last year, was sufficiently well-regarded by the Bush administration that it considered making him acting NIH head after Elias Zerhouni stepped down in 2008. Collins rebuffed such an inquiry, perhaps because it would likely have precluded him from being selected for the post he is about to take.
Dr. Francis Collins
Collins is an evangelical Christian and a scientist, which some see as an odd juxtaposition, although there is no reason that those characteristics cannot coincide. (In my own faith, for example, Maimonedes was pretty serious about his Judaism, yet also a scientist of the highest order.) Collins is both pro-choice and for federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research, so the administration does not have to worry about policy differences with him. Collins also led the Human Genome Project, the team that worked to unlock the human genome, a feat that Zerhouni claims will be the only thing for which this decade will be remembered 1,000 years from now. Good thing, that, if you ask me.
So what to make of the pick? Perhaps this is part of Obama’s attempt to expand his base, an effort that has included selecting Republicans for appointments, such as Ray Lahood at Transportation, Jon Huntsman as Envoy to China, John McHugh as Secretary of the Army, and the failed Judd Gregg pick at Commerce. If so, it’s a low-cost way to try to make inroads in the evangelical community.
Whatever the motivation for the selection, Collins inherits a heavy management challenge at NIH, which is trying to absorb the $10 billion added to its baseline as part of the stimulus package. (If you recall, when Arlen Specter was still a Republican, he made his support for the stimulus contingent on the additional funding for NIH.) In a world of scarce resources, scientists rely on NIH funding both for the dollars themselves and for the credibility an NIH grant provides. Collins will also oversee the implementation of the new guidelines on federal funding for stem-cell research, which are looser than the initial release on this indicated. And NIH has control over $400 million of the $1.1 billion for Comparative Effectiveness Research that the stimulus package called for. This research will be at the forefront of determining which treatments are deemed “effective,” and hence paid for, in the years ahead.
All in all, a lot on his plate. Dr. Collins will have have his hands full trying to make sure NIH spends their $40 billion wisely.