WASHINGTON — Francis Collins is ready for the National Institutes of Health to fail spectacularly.
At least, he’s ready for a few of the agency’s potential new projects to go up in flames: the high-risk, high-reward pursuits that would come out of a new research wing that President Biden has proposed. The potential for earth-shattering successes makes the proposed new agency a risk worth taking, Collins said during an interview at STAT’s Breakthrough Science Summit.
“Washington is ready,” he said. “They’ve seen the example of DARPA, which has led to some pretty amazing things, like the internet and GPS — but also had some spectacular failures. But people forgive them for that, because of the successes.”
Collins also bluntly acknowledged what many of ARPA-H’s biggest proponents have recently alleged: That in many cases, the NIH has grown too risk-averse. The new agency, Collins said, could bring a heightened pace, increased ambition, and a willingness to pursue projects that don’t pan out.
The potential new agency, which the Biden administration has dubbed the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, is central to the White House’s vision for expanding government-funded research and accelerating cures for diseases including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer.
Biotech investors and venture capitalists already know “that failure is an important component of anything that’s really going to get you somewhere, otherwise you’re just going to be doing the next, obvious thing,” Collins said. “That’s not what ARPA-H is designed to do. It’s aimed to take on [these] really big, bold, hairy, audacious goals that are amenable to a new way of doing science, where you have very bold plans but very specific milestones.”
The administration’s vision for ARPA-H has come into sharper focus this week thanks to Collins’ recent interviews and congressional testimony, as well as an article he and Eric Lander, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, recently published in Science.
The new agency, however, has hit its first major snag. While the Biden administration had originally requested $6.5 billion to fund it, House Democrats this week unveiled a spending bill that would provide less than half that amount.
It’s not clear whether the immense funding gap is a sign of congressional wariness. Broadly, lawmakers have appeared broadly supportive of Biden’s proposal; a key bipartisan duo offered up the full $6.5 billion in a separate proposal just last month. A House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Lawmakers have also cautioned that ARPA-H should take pains to create a distinct culture from NIH. In a report accompanying the spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee even warned that the new agency “should be housed outside the NIH’s main campus in Bethesda, Md.”
Collins, on Wednesday, said establishing an ARPA-H headquarters far from the NIH’s home base is “on the table.”
“If you wanted to make the case that something of this sort, furthermore to emphasize its autonomy and its cultural difference, maybe shouldn’t be in Bethesda, but maybe should be in Boston or San Diego, I’d be willing to listen to that,” Collins said.
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