National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who led the agency through the COVID-19 pandemic and helped spearhead the Human Genome Project, announced Tuesday he would step down from the top post by the end of the year.
Collins, the longest-serving NIH director, has been at the agency’s helm for 12 years under three presidents. A physician-geneticist, he led the Human Genome Project at NIH before being nominated by President Barack Obama to lead the entire agency.
Collins consistently received broad bipartisan support and was confirmed by voice vote in the Senate in 2009.
The NIH loses a successful advocate in Collins, who leveraged his plainspoken appeal and genial relationship with both parties to secure a 38 percent increase in the NIH budget over his tenure.
The $41.3 billion NIH budget for fiscal 2021 covers a number of bipartisan research priorities at the agency’s 27 institutes and centers. Increasing NIH funding has been championed by lawmakers including Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., and ranking member Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
His successor, who has not been named, will face the task of ensuring that the agency receives similar funding bumps.
Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine who has received NIH funding, said it’s difficult to know who might succeed Collins.
“As a researcher, I need someone who has credibility and is able to speak to Congress … [on] how important the NIH budget is and how research translates into improvements of well-being for Americans,’ he said.
He noted that over the past half-century, only one woman and no African Americans or Latinos have been confirmed as NIH director. He said he hopes President Joe Biden chooses a minority candidate.
“I think that will be really important,” he said.
In 2019, Collins drew attention to the underrepresentation of female scientists in leadership positions and in public speaking roles by saying he would no longer speak on all-male panels at meetings.
“It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade,” Collins said in a statement. “I fundamentally believe, however, that no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future.”
Collins leaves the helm of the NIH at the same time Congress considers Biden’s proposal for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, a medical research project in the model of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The proposal would increase the NIH's budget considerably, by $6.5 billion over three years.
Biden cited the ARPA-H initiative and the pandemic as among the reasons he asked Collins in January to continue as leader.
"I was grateful he answered the call to serve even though it was asking him to stay on the job longer than anyone in NIH history," Biden said.
"Millions of people will never know Dr. Collins saved their lives," the president added. "Countless researchers will aspire to follow in his footsteps. And I will miss the counsel, expertise, and good humor of a brilliant mind and dear friend."
Congressional Republicans recently were more critical of Collins for a perceived lack of transparency about funding NIH provided to EcoHealth Alliance, a U.S. nonprofit that worked with the Wuhan Institute of Virology on sampling and genetically manipulating coronaviruses. House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington warned earlier this year that the relationship between the NIH and the committee was deteriorating because of a lack of answers from the NIH on its funding of the Wuhan lab, jeopardizing GOP support for ARPA-H.
Collins committed in June to testifying on the issue in a secure hearing.
He also received some pushback from abortion opponents over his support of continuing fetal tissue research at NIH. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., led 40 other lawmakers in a 2018 letter that said spending tax dollars to fund research using "the body parts of aborted children is immoral" and calling for President Donald Trump to replace Collins.
Collins said he plans to stay on at the NIH and resume leading research at the National Human Genome Research Institute, which he led from 1993 to 2008. During that service, he led the international Human Genome Project, which resulted in the mapping of the human genome in April 2003. In the future, Collins plans to work on research related to preventing Type 2 diabetes and gene therapies related to aging and Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra praised his tenure.
“Few people could come anywhere close to achieving in a lifetime what Dr. Collins has at the helm of NIH,” said Becerra.
Lawmakers from both parties also thanked Collins for his time as director.
“The scientific and medical breakthroughs supported by NIH have allowed millions of Americans, myself included, to live healthier and longer lives,” said House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who also applauded his work on addressing gender differences in clinical trials.
Blunt called his long tenure “a testament to the confidence and respect he garnered on both sides of the aisle.”
“I have always appreciated how effectively Dr. Collins has worked with the Congress to help us achieve a pattern of substantial, historic federal increases in NIH funding,” he said. “While his departure will be a tremendous loss for NIH, he has chosen 24 of the 27 NIH institute directors, and has helped create a strong network of researchers all over the country who will continue making progress toward lifesaving medical breakthroughs.”
Emily Kopp contributed to this report.