NIH Director Francis S. Collins thought now was the right time to retire because the work toward making Covid-19 vaccines and other tools available put the agency in a “in a very solid place.”
“Not that we’re out of this pandemic, because we most certainly are not,” Collins quickly added Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg Law. But with three vaccines now available, in large part through NIH’s basic research and public-private partnerships, along with its “Shark Tank"-like program for testing, “it feels as if the need for my continued sort of hour-to-hour oversight has been appropriately waning over the time.”
Collins announced Tuesday that he plans to retire from the National Institutes of Health after more than a dozen years at its helm and nearly three decades at the agency. There’s no scheduled retirement date, but Collins said he plans on leaving this post by the end of the calendar year.
The physician-geneticist is the second-longest-running director of all time—just a year shy of James A. Shannon’s 13 years—and he’s the only director to serve under three administrations.
Collins said his retirement wasn’t a snap decision. “This is not just because I had a bad day yesterday,” he said. “This is a product of deep consideration over many weeks, in fact, more like three or four months,” he said.
He said this is the right time to leave not only because of where the agency’s role is during the pandemic, but also because it will put the White House in the best spot to find and nominate a new NIH director whom the Senate can confirm.
Making the announcement now—and not later in the year—will also enable Collins to help plan the transition.
“This just seemed like the right time. I will tell you, it’s not without a lump in my throat.”
A Woman at the Helm?
Collins has also made clear he’d like to see a woman lead the agency. “That would be a great statement at the time where we need to further highlight the need for diversity in our workforce,” he said.
There’s only been one female NIH director since the creation of that position in 1887—the late Bernadine Healy, who tapped Collins to lead the genome institute in 1993. In that role, he led the nearly 15-year endeavor to map the human genome, which ended in 2003.
Collins told Bloomberg Law two years ago he wasn’t interested in a lifelong term, which he reiterated upon announcing his retirement.
“It’s a really good idea to have new ideas, new vision, and I wouldn’t want to constrain what that might look like,” he said when asked in what direction he thinks the agency should go.
“I do think the NIH director has this remarkable ability to look across the landscape of what’s happening and biomedical research and to identify things that aren’t necessarily just going to happen naturally, and bring together the kind of expertise to create a program that can be transformative.”
As director, Collins led some of the biggest organizational changes to the agency, including an overhaul of its research hospital operations and a replacement of one NIH center with what’s now that National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. He also led big ticket initiatives on precision medicine, brain research and the cancer moonshot, which Joe Biden led as Obama’s vice president.
Collins further highlighted to Bloomberg Law his work to build partnerships both among the sister health agencies and with industry in a 2014 partnership that he said set up the collaborations needed to make Covid-19 vaccines available in record time.
One of the big challenges for the next director will be shaping the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA-H, a Biden administration proposal to create a biomedical discoveries incubator within the NIH through short-term, high-risk special projects that the agency doesn’t usually fund through its traditional programs.
“The director of ARPA-H will have the primary responsibility for making that dream come true,” Collins said. “But the NIH director will certainly be a critical player in shaping that new entity, which we’re all pretty excited about.”
He also noted there needs to be continuing policy work to build a diverse workforce of researchers while focusing on health equity and dismantling structural racism.
“We’re determined at NIH to do what we can to turn that around and that means really coming up with effective ways to make our workforce welcoming to people who are typically underrepresented and to revamp our health disparities research, to be more about interventions and a little less about just observations,” he said.
Back to the Lab
While Collins said he’s planning on spending more time on his other interests, he’s actually not going very far.
He’s returning to his laboratory within the National Human Genome Research Institute, where he researches how gene function interacts with human diseases. It has focused in particular on diabetes and a rare disorder of premature aging called progeria.
“Both of those projects are in really exciting places right now,” he said.
He also said he may want to do some writing and mini-sabbaticals. Collins is an Evangelical Christian who’s written several books on spirituality and science.
He said he also wants to spend some time on his Harley.
“The poor, poor motorcycle has gotten very few miles on it for the last two years.”