Francis Collins, current NIH director

Francis Collins

Ernesto del Aguila III/NHGRI/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

NIH director’s possible exit plan: Back to the lab

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the past 7 years, expects to go back to full-time research for a while if he’s not asked to stay on by President-elect Donald Trump, the physician-geneticist said this week. And he expressed unhappiness with Congress’s plan to freeze NIH spending at current levels well into next year, dubbing it “crap.”

Like other presidential appointees, Collins must submit by 7 December a letter of resignation that says he will resign as of 20 January, Collins told Scientific American earlier this week. After that, “I have no idea … my mind is pretty open. … It’s not really up to me.” But he said he expects to continue to run the lab he has had at NIH for 23 years “come what may.” 

Collins declined to comment to reporters yesterday on whether he has been talking to the Trump transition team, but said that if he were asked to stay on, “I guess I'd have to see if that actually happened and what the conditions were.”

He told ScienceInsider that if he doesn’t remain NIH director, it’s “absolutely possible” that he would go back to full-time research “at least for a while. It's sort of like a sabbatical.” He said that he has had “no ability to do any negotiation about possible future roles” in the public or private sectors because of federal conflict of interest rules. “So when people say, ‘You must have a plan on what you're going to do next,’ and I say ‘I don't,’ they should believe it because I don't.”

Collins’s NIH lab, which studies the genetics of diabetes and aging, now has about 10 members, including four postdocs. Collins says he could conceivably stay on permanently at NIH: “It is a wonderful place and my lab is very well situated.” He added, however, that in anticipation of a possible move, he has not taken any new trainees into his lab for the past couple years.  

Collins, 66, previously took a break after stepping down in 2008 as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, where he led the Human Genome Project. After writing a book about personalized medicine, he became NIH director in August 2009.

His predecessor, Elias Zerhouni, also took some time off after resigning shortly before the 2008 presidential election. But Harold Varmus, NIH director in the late 1990s, moved directly from that position to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 1999.

Collins has been sending a message of reassurance to NIH staff and the research community since Trump’s upset victory on 8 November. He said yesterday that he’s “not really concerned” about the fate of President Obama’s initiatives in precision medicine and brain research. “Congress has been continually positive about medical research, it's one of their highest priorities, and its not a partisan issue. … That kind of support which has already led to the launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative and the BRAIN [Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies] initiative … gives me great confidence that despite various transitions, this kind of effort is going to continue to be a priority for the United States.”

Collins did express concern, however, about the news yesterday that Congress intends to pass a stopgap funding measure keeping NIH’s current budget at the 2016 level until 31 March. The Senate and House of Representatives had been considering 2017 spending bills that would give the $32 billion agency between a $1.25 billion and $2 billion increase next year. A continuing resolution (CR), as it’s called, would be “an extremely unfortunate and painful outcome for biomedical research” because it would force NIH to spend its final 2017 budget in just 6 months. That could make it difficult to spend the money “in the most innovative way,” he told an audience at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

“There's an acronym here which is: A CR Attenuates Progress. That would be C-R-A-P in case you haven't figured that out," Collins said to laughter.