Obama names former 'U' prof as NIH director candidate

BY KATHERINE MITCHELL
Daily Staff Reporter
Published July 10, 2009

President Barack Obama announced the nomination of Dr. Francis Collins as his choice for director of the National Institutes of Health on Wednesday.

Collins, a former University professor and researcher, had been serving as director of the Human Genome Project until his resignation in 2008. He was a University faculty member from 1984 to 2003 during which time he researched and taught in the Medical School.

Human Genetics Prof. Thomas Gelehrter, who recruited Collins to the University and co-taught a medical genetics class with him for many years, said he believes that Collins is a remarkable researcher.

“He is an outstanding scientist,” Gelehrter said. “Clearly he is a star.”

Collins’s most noteworthy accomplishments include the discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene while researching at the University in 1989 and directing the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003. The project mapped and identified all human genes, successfully identifying the more than 20,000 genes in human DNA and their multiple sequences.

The NIH — based in Bethesda, Md. — controls billions of federal grant money awarded to thousands of scientists. The organization’s Web site states that the organization awards almost 50,000 competitive grants to more than 325,000 researchers. These grants reach over 3,000 universities — including the University of Michigan — along with medical schools and other research institutions in the United States and abroad.

If officially appointed director of the NIH, Collins would face new challenges in light of the economy and the new presidential administration. Both Gelehrter and Deb Gumucio, one of Collins first post-doctoral researchers in Collins’ lab at the University, recognize how Collins’s natural abilities will aid him in shaping the future of the NIH.

Gumucio, a professor of cellular and developmental biology in the Medical School, said Collins has teambuilding skills valuable to the NIH, including the ability to put the right people together to solve a problem or work out and issue. This is especially valuable since he will be “taking the helm (of the NIH) at a complicated time,” she said.

Gumucio said the last eight years under the Bush administration diminished the value of science, meaning Collins will need to lobby the Obama administration the need for science.

“Collins is a very motivational person who will be able to … convey to (the new administration) how important science is,” she said.

Gelehrter also praised Collins’s ability to motivate and rally people together to solve problems and accomplish goals — a vital skill that will help Collins encourage Capitol Hill and other political powers to fight for science’s presence in the political ring.

“He’s a terrific cheerleader,” Gelehrter said. “Now that’s part of his job.”

Gelehrter said that he believes these motivational and communicative skills will help Collins lead NIH, especially because of the success Collins found in leading the Human Genome Project. Gelehrter added that one of the most “stunning” accomplishments of his job as project director was bringing people together and fostering international cooperation on a big science project.

There are some criticisms that can be made of Collins, though Gumucio and Gelehrter aren’t concerned about them.

One issue, religion, has been largely pushed aside by critics due to Collins’s support of some stem cell research measures. A self-proclaimed Christian, Collins wrote a book in 2006, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief,” about the relationship between God and science.

Though, some still take issue with Collins’s beliefs, Gumucio said that, “in practice, he’s a scientist,” and that his belief structures did not interfere with work in the lab.

Additionally, Gelehrter and Gumucio recognized Collins’ background working with big science, referring to projects involving larger groups of people working toward a big goal such as the Human Genome project. When allocating funding, Collins will have to determine how much goes to big science versus little science, individual labs doing projects and making advances that aren’t on such a large scale but are still important.

“I think he’s already proven he’s very adept at working with big science,” Gumucio said, adding that Collins must advocate little science too.

Gelehrter said little science has been enormously successful in research as of late, and that all the institutes that make up the National Institutes of Health — along with grant seekers — will be vying for funding.

“Even though NIH has a lot of money, there isn’t enough to support the good science that could be done,” Gelehrter said.

With the crumbling state of the economy, science funding was improved through the stimulus. As such, Gumucio said there is some stability but that it won’t last.

The NIH received $8.2 billion in stimulus money as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed by Obama last February. The extra money will only last about two years.

Gumucio said this is a question Collins will have to address early: “What is the model two years from now when all the stimulus money goes away?”

The NIH is the largest federal or non-federal fund source for University research. According to the January 2009 Report on Research and Scholarship released by the Office of the Vice President for Research, the NIH granted $387,738,690 in funding for fiscal year 2007, totaling 41.7 percent of research funds. In fiscal year 2008, NIH funding increased to $393,033,824 or 44.9 percent of all research funding.

The report also recognized the impact of the lack of science funding in the last decade, revealing that NIH expenditures grew by 14.5 percent between fiscal years 1999 and 2000, though the total “has been nearly flat” since fiscal year 2006, increasing by only 1.2 percent.

One of Collins’s most recent University honors came in 2007 when he received an honorary degree as winter commencement speaker. When asked this week about why Collins was chosen as the speaker, University President Mary Sue Coleman praised Collins’s scientific and personal characteristics.

“Francis Collins is a world-renowned scientist — the description of him as a rock star of science is pretty accurate — who is a warm and funny speaker,” she said. “I thought he was a wonderful and important role model for students.”