Francis Collins ended his 12 years as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on a high note last week, rushing to interviews and being showered with fond tributes from former presidents and even cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Collins, an affable, guitar-playing, motorcycle-riding geneticist and physician, steered the $43 billion agency through three administrations, won budget increases, and launched major new programs in cancer, neuroscience, and personalized medicine. He also led NIH’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Collins, who is returning to his lab at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, spoke with Science about some of his tenure’s highs and lows. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Diversity is one area where you wish you’d made more progress. But NIH recently ended a policy that some institutes hoped would help identify high-quality proposals from Black scientists that just missed the funding cutoff. Was that because of legal concerns?
A: Exactly. What we must not do in our efforts to try to right 400 years of wrongs is put forward solutions that can be readily attacked as inconsistent with Supreme Court rulings. We cannot run the risk of a legal challenge.
Q: You mentioned recently that the so-called Ginther gap between funding rates for Black and white investigators might have narrowed this year. Was that because institute directors had some flexibility to fund proposals that fell below the funding cutoff?
A: Directors have the ability to not be slavishly adhering to priority scores, because part of their job is to look and say: What is near the pay line that needs to be thought about in a program relevance way? This is the kind of thing that I would have hoped we could do a little better. [Because of] the topic they’re studying, minority investigators often end up in an institute where everybody has a lower chance of getting funded. That contributes further to the Ginther gap. We need to figure out how to fix that.
Q: How do you feel about your efforts to support younger, early-stage investigators?
A: We still have a problem that academic institutes keep trainees in graduate and postdoc positions too long. But that’s not a lever that we can totally pull. In terms of the success rate for a first-time investigator, we have pushed that up to about 25%. Look at the numbers. We had 600 early-stage investigators funded in 2014. The number for [this year] is about 1400. I would say it’s progress in the right direction.
Q: Do you think the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), the new agency to accelerate biomedical research, is going to happen? And should it be a stand-alone agency rather than part of NIH?
A: I sure hope it happens. There seems to be enthusiasm in both the House [of Representatives] and the Senate. It’s going to be quite a challenge to stand up a complicated organization like this. NIH is quite ready to do that while maintaining arm’s length to ensure a very different culture at ARPA-H. It is going to have to figure out the most compelling projects that involve an opportunity to move something forward at a pace that otherwise wouldn’t happen. It seems to me NIH is in a pretty good place to bubble up those kinds of projects.
Q: NIH has been involved in the Department of Justice’s China Initiative, which aims to stop intellectual property theft, because of concerns that some NIH-funded scientists have not disclosed foreign funding. Some investigations have resulted in criminal prosecutions. Is this the right way to handle it?
A: I really don’t like the idea of calling this the China Initiative. We need to be sure when somebody is seeking substantial funding from NIH that they have disclosed their other support. It is clear there have been egregious incidents where people had substantial funding, even shadow labs in another country, [that they did not disclose]. It’s up to the [federal prosecutors] to decide if somebody has broken a law, such as tax law.
Q: Do you share concerns that NIH’s actions are contributing to a brain drain of scientists of Chinese descent?
A: I am certainly concerned that Chinese scientists may perceive that this is a targeting, racial profiling. That’s not what’s going on here. [China’s effort to recruit foreign scientific talent] has set up a lot of these situations. But we do have instances with other countries. I’ve heard anecdotes of people who felt that maybe the environment was not as friendly as they would like right now and have decided to go to China—oftentimes to lucrative offers, I might say. But if there is data of that sort, I haven’t seen it.
Q: You came under fire from scientists in 2020 for suspending a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance and its subcontractor, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, to survey bat coronaviruses. NIH later restored it but with conditions that EcoHealth said were impossible to meet. Why haven’t you relaxed those conditions and resumed the grant?
A: The termination of the grant, which came down as an order from the White House, was not something that we were given a choice about. [Since then,] it’s clear that while the original justification for the work they were doing was quite compelling, there have been ways in which EcoHealth has not been responsive to NIH requests for information. For instance, they were supposed to notify NIH if a certain viral construct they were working with turned out to have a more than one log increase in infectivity for a humanized mouse, which did not happen. So they have not fully discharged their responsibilities working in an area that’s obviously fraught with potential for human harm. [In imposing conditions on the grant,] we’re treating them like we would any grantee that has responsibilities and hasn’t lived up to them.
Q: The EcoHealth controversy has raised questions about the adequacy of federal policy aimed at regulating NIH-funded experiments with pathogens that could cause a pandemic. Do you expect NIH to revisit the policy?
A: If people are unhappy with it, well, then let’s talk about whether it needs to be revisited. We’re totally open to that. And presumably, that would be done by the [National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity]. I think probably this will be happening in the coming months.
Q: What won’t you miss about being NIH director?
A: I won’t miss the nasty politics that unfortunately seem to surround a lot of what’s happening right now as a reflection of the divisiveness in our country. I won’t miss the slings and arrows being pitched at NIH, on the basis of political perspectives. I won’t miss getting really horrible, hateful emails every time I show up on Fox News. And the things that they’re quite comfortable saying about me and my family. I won’t miss 100 hours a week [of work]. That oftentimes was utterly exhausting and consuming, but it needed to be. So I haven’t had much chance to really stop, reflect, and think and maybe do some writing. I will be glad to be able to do some of those things.