Francis Collins, the physician-scientist perhaps best known for piloting the Human Genome Project, is stepping down as director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in Bethesda, Maryland. Collins said today that he will leave on 1 August to write a book and explore other opportunities, which might include getting involved in the presidential campaign or taking a nonprofit position.
Collins, 58, took the helm of the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) NHGRI in 1993 as it was gearing up to sequence the human genome, then a controversial $3 billion proposal. The quest heated up when a private company, Celera, jumped in, spurring fierce competition. Both public and private efforts published a rough draft in 2001 and the full sequence was completed in 2003. Under Collins, the institute also advanced the sequencing of the genomes of many model organisms, from yeast to the platypus, that have spurred the study of evolution at a molecular level. Collins championed the public sharing of genome data and pushed for legislation to protect people against discrimination based on their genes. A law codifying that protection was signed by President George W. Bush last week.
"It has been a great era while he's been director," says Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. One of Collins's challenges, however, has been finding new goals for the institute once the human genome was finished, Stillman adds. It has launched projects such as a major effort to develop knock-out mice (ScienceNOW, 7 September 2006) and The Cancer Genome Atlas (Science, 16 December 2005, p. 1751), which, with the cancer institute, is sequencing mutations in human cancers. Still, as sequencing gets cheaper, the next director will have to redefine the institute's scientific role, Stillman says.
Collins told reporters today that his time at NIH has been "marvelous," despite the recent slump in the NIH budget, which he says has made it "much tougher." However, his reasons for leaving have nothing to do with NIH leadership or budget; he says that it is simply the fact that "the time seems right" to explore job possibilities with more freedom than if he were still in a federal position. Collins plans to work on a book about personalized medicine and says he would be interested in helping with a presidential campaign if asked. Another government position is also possible, Collins says. For example, if he were approached about becoming the next NIH director, "I'd be crazy to say no," he says.
Alan Guttmacher, now NHGRI deputy director, will serve as acting director while NIH director Elias Zerhouni searches for a successor.