The director of the National Institutes of Health is stepping down. During his career, Dr. Francis S. Collins directed crucial research into the human genome and the fight against serious diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and COVID-19. Collins has also worked to demonstrate how religious faith can encourage serious scientific research.
President Barack Obama appointed Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2009. Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden both asked him to remain in that post. Collins is the only presidentially appointed NIH director to serve under multiple administrations.
Before joining the NIH, Collins taught at the University of Michigan. Colleagues called him the “gene hunter” for his groundbreaking technique used to isolate disease-related genes. His research teams helped discover the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, and others.
Collins also served as director of the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute from 1993-2008 and led the international Human Genome Project. That project completed a finished sequence of the human DNA instruction book in 2003.
Now-President Biden called Collins “one of the most important scientists of our time.” President Obama asked Vice President Biden to launch an effort to fuel innovation and accelerate new treatments after his son, Beau Biden, died of cancer at age 46 in 2015.
The NIH, based in Bethesda, Maryland, is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s the nation’s medical research agency and operates more than two dozen institutes and centers. Some say it is the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. Most recently, Collins has researched treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.
Besides his much-heralded work for the NIH, Collins is known widely for writing on religion and science and reconciling the two. Last year, he was awarded one of the world’s leading religion prizes, the Templeton Prize, for demonstrating how religious faith can motivate scientific research.
His book The Language of God “argues that belief in God can be an entirely rational choice.” Collins says, “The principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science.” One of his goals in writing was to encourage religious people to embrace scientific discoveries to enrich and enlarge their faith.
In accepting the Templeton Prize, Collins said, “The elegant complexity of human biology constantly creates in me a sense of awe. Yet I grieve at the suffering and death I see all around, and at times I confess I am assailed by doubts about how a loving God would permit such tragedies. But then I remember that the God who hung on the cross is intimately familiar with suffering. I learn and re-learn that God never promised freedom from suffering—but rather to be ‘our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’” (Psalm 46)
Collins says he is “grateful and proud of the NIH staff and the scientific community, whose extraordinary commitment to lifesaving research delivers hope to the American people and the world every day.” He calls the decision to step down at year’s end “a difficult one.”
“I fundamentally believe, however, that no single person should serve in the position too long,” Collins says, “and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra lauded Collins for his work, “Few people could come anywhere close to achieving in a lifetime what Dr. Collins has at the helm of NIH,” he says. “It takes an extraordinary person to tackle the biggest scientific challenges facing our nation—and under three presidents, amidst three distinctly different chapters of American history.”
The NIH says Collins will continue to lead his research lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
(Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, appears before the U.S. Senate to discuss protecting public health during the coronavirus pandemic on Capitol Hill, on September 9, 2020, in Washington, D.C. Michael Reynolds/Pool via AP)