- National Institutes of Health head Francis Collins is stepping down at the end of the year from the job he has held since 2009. The longest-serving presidentially appointed NIH director, Collins, 71, said he is leaving because "it's time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future."
- President Joe Biden, who was serving as vice president when former president Barack Obama first appointed Collins, praised him as "one of the most important scientists of our time." "Millions of people will never know Dr. Collins saved their lives," he added.
- NIH is the largest biomedical research institution in the world, with a 2021 budget of $43 billion that funds work by both government scientists and university investigators. Its research targets range from mental health and racial health disparities to the study of cancer and infectious diseases. Importantly, in 2020 and 2021, the agency aided the large-scale clinical testing that helped prove the safety and effectiveness of Moderna's and Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus vaccines.
The NIH director's position is one of the most high-profile health jobs in any presidential administration. The job involves overseeing the work of 27 different focused institutes and managing one of the biggest budgets in the federal government. Typically, NIH directors are well-known physicians or scientists.
Appointed by Obama, Collins was asked to stay in the job when former president Donald Trump took office in 2017, as Biden did earlier this year. When he steps down at the end of the year, Collins won't leave government, but rather will resume work with the NIH's Human Genome Research Institute, which he led before being appointed as NIH head.
His departure comes as the agency continues its prominent role in the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, after a year in which it was called upon to accelerate the launch of treatments, vaccines and diagnostics. The NIH's National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases conducts and funds trials on vaccines, boosters, treatments, viral transmission and the after effects of severe infection, while that division's director, Tony Fauci, has been a chief government spokesperson on pandemic response.
Collins became NIH director at a time when the agency's appropriated budget stagnated following a period of strong growth in the 1990s and early 2000s. Congress and the White House began significantly increasing funding again around 2015, and the 2022 budget request calls for a 14% jump to nearly $52 billion.
Collins oversaw the creation of a number of new initiatives, including gathering the health data of 1 million people to aid in the development of "precision medicines"; a multibillion-dollar effort to detect and understand brain pathologies in mental health disorders and degenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease; and the Cancer Moonshot, for which Biden became a major advocate.
This year, the Biden administration has moved forward with a Collins-backed effort called Advanced Research Project Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, modeled on a Defense Department center, which will support "high-risk, high-reward biomedical and health research in a way that is radically different than NIH's grant-based system." Congress has not yet passed legislation that would fund ARPA-H.