It is noteworthy that the reputation of the National Institutes of Health remained largely intact during the Covid-19 pandemic, even as other federal science agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, came under partisan fire.
This is not least due to the quiet but politically astute director of the NIH, Dr. Francis Collins. Motorcycling, Collins playing guitar announced Tuesday that he will step down as head of the research agency by the end of the year after serving under three presidents for more than a dozen years.
“No single person should be in office for too long,” said Collins in a statement, and “It is time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future.” Collins, 71, said he plans to return to his laboratory at the National Human Genome Research Institute, which he has been working on for 15 years 1993 to 2008 passed legislation Protecting the privacy of individuals’ genetic information.
The big question now is not just who will fill in Collins’ big footsteps at NIH, but whether the agency can maintain its status as a political favorite with members of both parties. Under Collins’ direction, the NIH budget has risen by more than a third in an era of largely flat federal health budgets, and policy interference in biomedical research has been, if not absent, at least largely on the front pages. This is in sharp contrast to the CDC, whose handling of the pandemic has drawn a lot of criticism from both Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and the FDA, which counted its own Covid missteps and almost 10 months into the new government without a nominated commissioner.
While Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, has a much higher profile than Collins and has also courted controversy, most of that flak has not impacted the NIH as a whole.
President Joe Biden praised Collins, called him “one of the most important scientists of our time”. Noting Collins’s work on the human genome and his help in launching the Obama administration’s work on precision medicine, the Brain Initiative, and the National Cancer Moonshot effort, Biden said, “Millions of people will never know that Dr. Collins is dead saved. “
Awards for Collins began to pour in from the scientific community as soon as news of his impending departure became known. “For more than a decade, Dr. Collins assumed exemplary leadership and responsibility as director of the NIH, “said the Cancer Action Network of the American Cancer Society.
And the politicians’ praise was clearly non-partisan. Senator Richard Burr (RN.C.) said in a statement that Collins “has skillfully and admirably led the NIH and better prepared it for the challenges of the 21st century.” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was no less exuberant, calling Collins “one of our nation’s greatest public servants, who has spent his career improving the health of all Americans and promoting cutting-edge research that enhances our understanding of the human body and itself.” Expanded possibilities “. heal it. “
It is noteworthy that the relative lack of controversy during Collins’s tenure has been the exception rather than the rule for NIH over the past half century. From the 1970s onwards, every advance in biomedical science, from in vitro fertilization to fetal tissue and stem cell research and cloning of Dolly the sheep, led to heated political arguments and headlines.
In the late 1990s, under the leadership of then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republicans decided to make science a priority led a doubling of the NIH budget, an effort Democrats happily joined in. But after that doubling, a stagnant NIH budget led to cuts in university research, thereby reducing it own controversythat Collins had to manage.
Controversies come with the territory. “Whenever there is controversy in science, the NIH gets involved,” said Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research! America, a science advocacy group.
What sets Collins apart, says Woolley, is his ability to communicate in order to overcome this controversy, “both in unexpected ways like singing and motorcycling, and in more traditional ways” like dealing with lawmakers.
Dr. Ross McKinney, Chief Scientific Officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, agreed. “He’s just done a dynamite job of communicating effectively with both sides,” he said. “He’s good with scientists, he’s personally Christian and religious, so he can talk to this side too.”
Both Woolley and McKinney said they are confident there are many good candidates to lead the NIH, although none would name one. But McKinney said he hopes the NIH doesn’t end up with a void like the FDA. “I think the FDA’s precedent is worrying,” he said.
Still, said Woolley, Collins was leaving the NIH in good shape. “The next leader will benefit from what he’s done,” she said.
HealthBent, a regular contributor to Kaiser Health News, provides policy insights and analysis from KHN’s chief Washington correspondent, Julie Rovner, who has covered health care for more than 30 years.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three main operational programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit foundation that provides the country with information on health issues.
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