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New NIH Research Center Head Expected to Have Vision, ‘Gravitas’

May 26, 2021, 7:27 PM

The head of President Joe Biden‘s proposed biomedical research agency will hold an empowered, five-year post, allowing future administrations to shape their own visions as the science evolves.

Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said he expects the head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, to be picked by the White House or the health secretary, which will give them an influential position in the Department of Health and Human Services.

“This needs to be somebody with gravitas and who is recognized as having the kind of authority that you’re going to need to have to move swiftly and not have too many things in the way,” Collins said in an interview following a Senate hearing Wednesday on NIH funding.

ARPA-H would be housed within the NIH, and the administration proposes spending $6.5 billion over three years on special projects that would bring in the private sector as well as scientists. The goal is to cut in half the time it would take to develop medical advances, such as a single shot to protect against the top 10 infectious diseases or an mRNA vaccine to shield against common cancers.

The White House will spell out many of these details Friday in Biden’s full fiscal 2022 federal budget request.

While Collins is playing a critical role in shaping ARPA-H, he made clear that the proposal to create this new agency comes from the administration and will be shaped by lawmakers.

“It’s their proposal, and now it’s up to the Congress to look at this and say, ‘Yeah, are we on board, and if so, do we think it was shaped right?’”

Shaping the Plan

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the labor-HHS spending panel, said at the hearing that she wants to learn more about the distinction between ARPA-H and traditional biomedical research programs at the NIH.

“Like the defense initiative it is inspired by, ARPA-H is envisioned as breaking the mold for how cutting edge research is conducted—speeding up the development of medical treatments by funding innovative projects,” she said.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said he likes the idea of a division in NIH that operates differently—funding projects that create solutions and go beyond basic research.

“This is a critical moment in a rapidly changing health-care world,” Blunt said during the hearing.

Collins said he’s working with Eric Lander, Biden’s nominee for science adviser and director of the White House Office for Science and Technology Policy, in shaping the plan for ARPA-H.

Collins and Lander are leading geneticists who have known each other for 25 years. Lander was one of Collins’s main partners in the Human Genome Project.

“Dr. Lander and I go way back,” Collins said. “So we’ve been plotting together about how this new arrival might really make a big difference for biomedical research.”

‘A Real Scientist’

A key distinction between ARPA-H and other NIH grant programs is the flexibility the agency will have to accelerate promising projects.

The leader for that agency has “got to be somebody who is a real scientist with a lot of vision about what are the bold new opportunities and can size up proposals that are coming to them” to choose the most promising ones, Collins said.

The ARPA-H director also must be able to spot talent quickly because program managers will only come in for two or three years, the same way that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency does.

“Those need to be people who also have the skill set to be able to take a challenging problem and figure out how to approach it and what kind of partners they need to bring together, so it’ll be an interesting job for the right person,” Collins said.

Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) also plan to include ARPA-H in follow-up legislation to their 2016 biomedical innovation law 21st Century Cures. Draft legislation of “Cures 2.0" is expected to be out by early June.

Collins noted ARPA-H and Cures have different funding streams. The 2016 law provided mandatory funds that expired after a decade, whereas the ARPA-H proposal would go through discretionary funding that appropriations panels oversee.

Meanwhile, the budget request will propose that the ARPA-H director have about a five-year appointment with at most one renewal, Collins said.

“This is not an appointment for life,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at; Jeannie Baumann in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at; Alexis Kramer at