he director of the National Institutes of Health said Friday that it would be a “privilege” to remain in that post if asked to stay by President-elect Donald Trump.
“I’m somebody who believes in public service,” Dr. Francis Collins said in an interview with STAT. “If I were asked to stay on, I would consider it a privilege to do so. We have a mission and a vision that is captivating, yeah, I want to be part of that.”
Collins said he had not yet been asked to stay. He said that if that call did not come, he would would likely return to the NIH lab he previously led, not far from his current headquarters on the campus in Bethesda, Md.
“I love NIH,” Collins said. “My assumption always had been that I’d go back into the lab, working with postdocs.”
Collins has served as NIH director since 2009, and has won praise from many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Last week, top Republicans released a letter calling on Trump to keep Collins in the post, saying he is “the right person, at the right time, to continue to lead the world’s premier biomedical research agency.”
Trump has made few comments about his vision for the NIH. The only other known contender for the job is Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland, a Republican who has openly lobbied for the job. Collins is aware of the competition.
The NIH is in the midst of launching several major research efforts, including the Precision Medicine Initiative and Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot. This past week, lawmakers gave a boost to those initiatives, passing the 21st Century Cures Act, which will provide the NIH with an additional $4.8 billion over 10 years.
“That would certainly make the opportunity even more exciting than if we were at a quiet space,” Collins said. “I cannot imagine taking on this job as a caretaker, so the idea that there are exciting things that are in phases of intense interest and opportunity, certainly that’s the way it should be and that’s the way I would want it to be.”
Collins said he appreciated the letter of support from lawmakers.
“That was a wonderfully flattering letter,” he said. “And I do have exceptionally good relationship with the Congress. The people who signed that letter have and many others have become big supporters on all we have to do.”
Collins said he hopes that the congressional goodwill, and bipartisan spirit that led to passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, can carry the NIH through the spring, when Congress could either pass a new funding bill with an increase for NIH’s overall budget, as some Republicans say they would like to do, or, as Collins fears, a stopgap measure that would keep funding stagnant.
Collins said the latter scenario “would be disastrous for the momentum that has been so strong over our entire research portfolio.”
“As thrilled as I am about the Cures bill, my anxiety is that it might be seen as the only thing that NIH needed for fiscal year ’17,” he said. “But it’s limited to three or four projects.”
To Collins, that means the NIH’s programs in basic science, rare diseases, and other areas could be hurt. He said he hopes the agency can sit out any political battles to come.
“NIH has benefitted greatly over many years, from being essentially above the political maneuvers that have affected lots of other parts of the government,” he said. “If that were to shift, if decisions started to be made more on the basis of political expedience or special interests instead of scientific opportunity, that would be a deep concern.”