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Francis Collins and the Challenge of the NIH

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Geneticist Francis Collins is the latest in a stellar list of scientists brought to federal leadership positions by President Barack Obama. They include two Nobel Prize winners, among other distinguished and innovative researchers.

Dr. Collins is world-renowned for having led the Human Genome Project from 1993 until last year, which succeeded in sequencing the human genome two years ahead of schedule. For his leadership, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last Friday, he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Director of the National Institutes of Health, which invests more than $30 billion annually in medical research.

The prime challenge that he now confronts at the NIH stems partly from increasing global competition in basic research, a competition that the United States has won hands-down for the past half-century. But, other nations are now wise to the importance of advanced research and technology, and a great game of catch-up is underway.

In the face of this intensifying competition, a number of commentators warn that the United States is hamstrung by the seeming inability of the NIH -- and other large federal research agencies such as the National Science Foundation -- to fund "transformative" research: the application of radically different approaches or interpretations resulting in the creation of new paradigms or new scientific fields. It's this radical approach -- admittedly risky and prone to failure, but also capable of producing startling breakthroughs -- that can sometimes create new industries and even redefine whole economies.

Surely after the latest Wall Street greed-fest and the resulting financial flameout, the United States badly needs a system-wide "makeover" that will yield a new wave of high-tech businesses, decent jobs and a brighter technological and environmental future. As President Obama succinctly put it this past April, "We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand."

The Human Genome Project undoubtedly will provide part of the solid foundation that America requires for a booming 21st-century economy, so who better to direct America's efforts to expand that foundation than Dr. Collins? The Project identified the 25,000 or so genes in human DNA, as well as the sequences of human DNA's three-billion chemical bases pairs. Improved data analysis techniques and new transfer-related technologies -- future tools -- are already emerging as a result of this pioneering work.

Dr. Collins has a nearly unparalleled perspective on the nature of genetics and genomics, subjects that are the basis of a powerful new paradigm that is fueling collaborations among medical researchers, biologists and even agricultural-oriented scientists. Humans and plants, for example, share a great deal of the genetic instruction code available on this small planet; or, as Vicki Chandler, a respected bio researcher recently named chief science program officer for the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, says, "There's not a lot of difference, genetically, between corn plants and humans."

The power of this new paradigm will become increasingly clear as tomorrow's interdisciplinary scientists conquer the long list of obscure genetic diseases ranging from Angleman Syndrome to Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy to Tay-Sachs Disease and Turner Syndrome. Meanwhile, their colleagues across the hall will be engineering crop plants to grow in seawater and other innovations.

The expanded powers that new paradigms bring to science, of course, also raise new ethical dilemmas. Fortunately, Dr. Collins is a widely respected commentator on ethical concerns regarding the potential for discrimination by insurance companies and employers based on our mounting knowledge of genetic disease and inheritance.

With the Obama Administration appointing high-quality scientific leaders like Dr. Collins, there is every reason to believe that the U.S. will prosper in the coming years. What's needed to ensure a bright future, however, is that these leaders pay close attention to the increasingly dire plight of America's early career researchers, many of whom struggle for years before getting their first major grants, while many others give up and go into such "productive" fields as finance and Wall Street banking.

And we know what happens then, don't we?

James M. Gentile is President & CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (www.rescorp.org), America's first foundation dedicated solely to science, founded in 1912.

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genome.gov | Former NHGRI Director Francis Collins' Biography