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Anxieties. Francis Collins chatted about his fears for the future.

Christina Reed

Francis Collins's Biggest Fear

SAN DIEGO—If there’s one thing that keeps Francis Collins up at night, it’s what to do when the money runs out. The director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is thrilled about the $10 billion the agency received as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. But the money is only good for 2 years. “Science doesn’t operate on 2-year cycles,” Collins said at a press conference here yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW). “It is not a dash; it is more of a marathon, and this is going to stress us when it comes to fiscal year 2011.”

Collins has reason to be wary. After years of flush funding, Congress flattened NIH’s budget between 2003-08, costing it about 15% of its buying power and threatening future research projects. Things have picked up with the Recovery Act and with President Barack Obama's 2011 budget request, which would give the agency a 3.2% raise over 2010. “That was a relief to those who expected a much more draconian outcome,” Collins said. But “we don’t know what the Congress is going to do with their part of this conversation,” he added. “There is no question that after this 2-year influx, which the community was desperate for, we are once again going to see a difficult time for investigators to get funding for all the great ideas they have.”

For now, NIH is experimenting with using the funding it does have in ways that might result in larger payoffs in the future, even though to do so means taking greater risks. For example, Collins is working to promote innovative projects through a more formal use of a common fund that was first appropriated in 2006 for projects that did not fit nicely into one of the 27 institutes or centers that make up NIH. The budget for the common fund now represents half a billion dollars, of which a modest amount is now available for distribution, out of $31 billion of the overall NIH annual appropriations. One-third of the common fund is specifically for high-risk, innovative projects. “If you’re not supporting research that fails sometimes, then you’re probably not doing a good job of encouraging the most groundbreaking ideas,” Collins said. “In the space of 6 months since I arrived, we’ve had an intense process of coming up with competitive ideas.”

Collins will announce on Wednesday seven new common fund projects that he said will likely have strong impacts on global health and systems biology. These include transformative technology efforts to image cells in real time in order to view single molecules under the influence of different stimuli; computational and bench approaches to diagram the dance of proteins and metabolites that occur in various types of cells; and investigations into methods for determining ways to predict if a molecule is toxic in order to reduce the need for toxicology tests on animals.

Betting on bold ideas, Collins is also hoping to guide scientists away from cranking out data toward working to understand what it all means. “If I was a senior in college or a first-year graduate student trying to figure out what area to work in, I would be a computational biologist,” Collins said. There is much to be done with the data already available and open to study. Still, researching the data relationships takes money. “The thing that keeps me up at night,” Collins said, “is how to make sure that we are continuing to have our community go forward in a vigorous and well-supported way, encouraging innovation, and making sure that early-stage investigators have a chance and don’t get discouraged by the tightness of the budget situation.”