Lessons from a Remarkable Tenure as Director of the US National Institutes of Health


Dr. Francis Collins stepped down this month as Director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) after 12 years at the helm – the longest-serving NIH Director. The agency, with broad responsibilities for biomedical and public health research, is respected throughout the world. A virtual Farewell Celebration was held in his honor – an interview of Dr. Collins by John Burklow, Acting Chief of Staff, and many expressions of appreciation from leading figures in government, science, medicine, and the arts!

The celebration was both moving and educational. Moving, because of the many heartfelt tributes from individuals who have gotten to know Dr. Collins and admire him for his many remarkable qualities – outstanding scientist, thoughtful leader, impassioned advocate, and committed global citizen. Educational, because Dr. Collins eloquently describes how research and discovery have a direct impact on improving the lives of people today and far into the future.

In the video, Dr. Collins highlights ideas and experiences that speak to the goals of CMB, in particular to the young professionals we nurture through our Equity Initiative, Clinical Fellows, and other CMB-supported programs. Busy schedules may keep you from watching the full video, so I highlight below, with time stamps, parts of the discussion that may connect with your areas of greatest interest.

  • Setting initial priorities: “We didn’t want to be just satisfied with great basic science and wonderful publications in prominent journals. We wanted to move science forward to benefit patients.” (4:27)
  • An unwavering focus on the welfare of patients: “For me, it’s always been about the potential of solving a mystery that’s going to help somebody. And here at the NIH, we have this most remarkable opportunity to do this every day.” (20:13)
  • Building partnerships to generate new ideas: “That may be the most important tool the NIH director has, is convening people.” (25:30)
  • Addressing social issues, with both urgency and sensitivity: “We are part of a society that has dreams and also has challenges and even has a history that is shot through with inequities.” (30:48)
  • Communicating the value of research. “It’s about how we’re saving lives, about how we’re answering questions, how we’re uncovering mysteries about how life works that nobody knew before.” (34:47)
  • A musician who wants to bring the arts and sciences together: “We ought to be able to bring together the neuroscientists…the musicians, and the music therapists who have been using music as a means of providing healing to people with all kinds of conditions.” (48:40)
  • Leading and learning: “We have the right leaders, but they all have the right skills, the right visions, the right intentions to make the world a better place together.” (1:08:07)

Dr. Francis Collins is a giant in science, medicine, and public advocacy, having led the Human Genome Project as it mapped the human genome and launched a new era of scientific possibilities, before becoming Director of the NIH. We are grateful to him for his leadership during these very challenging times and wish him well as he returns to research and brings his boundless curiosity back to the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Barbara J. Stoll, MD
China Medical Board

To watch the virtual farewell in its entirety, click here.