This January will not only mark a new year but a new administration and with that over 4000 new presidential appointees across the federal government. One appointment that has the potential to either hinder or benefit the biomedical research community is that of the director of the National Institutes of Health. The NIH, with a proposed budget in fiscal 2017 of $34 billion by the U.S. Senate, supports the bulk of federally funded biomedical research, and its director has the potential to have far-reaching impacts on the biomedical research community.
Francis Collins, the current director, has been in charge of the NIH since he was appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama. A champion of personalized medicine and having served as the first director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Collins was seen by many as the ideal choice to run the agency because he has the ability to talk to both scientists as well as lawmakers on both sides of the isle. Under the outgoing administration’s policy to facilitate a smooth transition to the next administration, Collins as well as other presidential appointees are required to submit a letter of resignation to the new administration effective no later than President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. This formality has some pleading with Trump’s transition team to keep Collins in charge of the NIH.
Trump, a proclaimed “ultimate outsider,” led a campaign that was touted as anti-establishment. One of his many campaign slogans summed up this position with the promise to gallivant into Washington, D.C., and “drain the swamp,” which is at odds with his recent nominations of billionaires and establishment Republicans into key Cabinet positions. With many of Trump’s actions coming in direct contradiction to his rhetoric on the campaign trail, those in the research community are looking for any indication of what his imminent presidency will have. Trump said once in a radio interview, “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible,” leading some to believe that the NIH may be on his hit list of agencies that he will “make great” again. His words, however, may have been just that, empty words with no backing especially when you consider that he’s kept pretty quiet about the NIH and biomedical research broadly since that radio interview.
Collins has been instrumental in implementing major research efforts, such as the Cancer Moonshot, Precision Medicine Initiative, and the elimination of Chimpanzees from NIH-funded research. He also has spoken publicly in favor of fair pay for postdocs in support of the Department of Labor’s new rule on overtime pay. His experience running the agency as well as his established relationships with Republican lawmakers makes him an ideal candidate to continue to lead the NIH in an administration that may cause some disruptions, for better or worse, in the federal government ecosystem. Collins has gone on record stating that it would be a “privilege” to remain at his post. His only known competition comes from U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist Republican congressman from Maryland. Harris has publicly thrown his own name into the proverbial hat to serve as the next director of the NIH. During his time in Congress, Harris has pushed for the NIH to develop an overarching strategic plan and to lower the average age of an NIH-funded investigator to 38. Additionally, Harris supports having NIH set asides for diseases that have a great impact on the economy.
Regardless of who’s appointed as director, the NIH needs someone who not only will keep the agency stable but will be an avid proponent for both basic and applied biomedical research as well as increasing the budget of the NIH. Investigator initiated studies are at the root of discovery, and a director who understands that and can convey that sentiment to both Congress and the new administration will be instrumental in sustaining the biomedical research enterprise in the future.