Trump retains Collins as NIH director

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Mark F.Jones/cjvisions.com

President Donald Trump announced this afternoon that he is keeping Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama in 2009, was asked to stay on temporarily after the election. But today’s announcement gives him a bit more job security.

The decision comes despite a recent call from some conservative members of Congress to fire Collins because he supports embryonic stem cell research. Collins has said he would return to full-time research if Trump asked him to step down.

In a statement released today, Collins said "I am honored to continue as the Director of the National Institutes of Health and consider it a great privilege to serve at a time of unprecedented opportunity to advance health and relieve suffering through biomedical research. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues at NIH, HHS, the Administration, the Congress, and the broader research and patient community. I am grateful for the President's vote of confidence in my ability to continue to lead this great agency."

Collins, a geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, runs a $34.6 billion agency whose budget the Trump administration wants to cut by 22% in 2018. Collins has avoided explaining how he would handle such a drastic cut, instead pointing out that NIH has broad bipartisan support in Congress. Lawmakers have boosted the agency’s budget by $2 billion each of the past 2 years. Collins will continue to head up initiatives launched by the Obama administration including the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative, the cancer moonshot, and a Precision Medicine Initiative that this week began pilot testing a plan to recruit 1 million volunteers for a long-term health and genetics study
 
Since Trump’s win last November, several candidates were reportedly in the running for the NIH directorship including U.S. Representative Andy Harris (R–MD) and Patrick Soon-Shiong, a surgeon-scientist who has made billions in business. Harris has since said he is no longer interested in the NIH position but some of his ideas for the agency, such as slashing overhead payments to universities, have made their way onto Trump’s agenda.
 
Lamar Alexander (R–TN), who chairs the Senate health committee, called the announcement “good news for the country and one of President Trump’s best appointments. There’s nobody better qualified than Francis Collins to help accelerate the medical miracles that have the potential to help virtually every American family.”

The news that Collins is staying on came as a relief to biomedical research advocates who have speculated that the Trump budget proposal could drive him away. “Given Dr. Collin’s superb relationship with the congressional leadership, it is a definite plus for the agency,” says Tony Mazzaschi, senior director for policy and research at the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health in Washington, D.C.

Biologist Keith Yamamoto at the University of California, San Francisco, also cheered the news. “I hope this appointment reflects President Trump’s recognition that NIH-supported research has long set the standard in the world, and that it presages much-needed sustained increases in NIH budgets in the coming years,” he says. Yamamoto hopes it also means that Trump will soon fill other vacant science posts, such as White House science adviser.