BETHESDA, Md. — Newly sworn-in National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins Monday laid out an aggressive agenda for the agency's 27 institutes and centers, including a greater focus on translational science, global health and putting scientific evidence to work as part of health reform.
Collins, who spearheaded the international effort to map and sequence the human genome, said one of the greatest challenges the agency faces, and what keeps him awake at night, is the looming 2011 fiscal year, when the $10.4 billion in stimulus funding is set to run out.
That, he said, could send the NIH off a financial cliff like in 2003 when funding was essentially frozen. Since 2003, he said, the NIH lost about 17 percent of its buying power.
To prevent the agency from going off that cliff, Collins said he must successfully make the case to Congress and the American people that strong financial support of NIH research is good for the economy.
"I think we can make the case with great compelling logic that the support of biomedical research is a value that is almost unmatched in terms of economic returns, in terms of its improvement in human health, with longevity increasing by one year every six years, a trend that continues and which can be traced in large part to NIH-funded research," Collins said Monday during a sit down with reporters on his first day on the job.
While some in Congress understand the direct link of the NIH to the progress of small businesses, such as the biotech community, not all do, Collins acknowledged.
"Every member of Congress brings their own experience to the table, and if they have happened to have had a personal experience of seeing how that it is true, they are likely to be much more jazzed about what we do," Collins said.
While most lawmakers with the greatest influence on the appropriating committees for NIH funding are informed of the agency's mission, one thing Collins said he would like to see the agency do more of is encourage its grantees to invite their members of Congress to personally see what is happening with those dollars "so that this isn't so hypothetical."
Collins said the NIH has not been successful in communicating to Americans the reasons why it needs more than $30 billion funding each year, a figure supporters of the agency would like to see increased to at least $40 billion.
"Certainly they don't know as much about the NIH as they do NASA," he said.
Collins said he has 22 goals he wants to achieve within his first six months as NIH director.
While he said he is keeping most of those "in my pocket" for the time being, one of his priorities on the list is to make the NIH more visible to the public by developing creative communication strategies and to communicate more proactively with the public.
In an era when Americans are on the Internet and are using social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, the NIH has an opportunity to increase its profile and engage "particularly the very turned on, tuned in Internet-savvy generation to get excited about what we are doing to inform the public about why they should care about medical research and what it is doing for them and to get the next generation of young people excited about playing some role," Collins said.
He emphasized that those efforts would not be to self-promote or overhype what science is doing, but be part of the NIH's educational role.
"We have a lot of cool stuff going on, and we don't necessarily tell the world about it as often or as effectively as we should," Collins said.
The new NIH chief, who was nominated by President Obama on July 8 and confirmed by the Senate on Aug. 7, earlier Monday told NIH employees he had five areas he wanted the agency to aggressively move forward to achieve.
Collins said his first two areas of priority are applying technologies to fundamental questions of biology and the translation of that basic science into treatments, diagnostics and prevention strategies.
"There are truly remarkable opportunities that are coming forth from high-throughput technologies, nanotechnology chemistry, imaging, genomics, computational biology, environmental science," Collins explained.
One area ripe for exploration in translational science, Collins said, is cancer, where scientists can have the ability to determine "all of the reasons that a good cell goes bad and goes from being a well-behaved cell to one that's a malignancy."
Scientists also now have the ability to take scientific discoveries "that are bursting around us and bring those to bear in the direction of the development of diagnostics and therapeutics," Collins said. "This is an area where public-private partnership is going to be crucial."
By investing in public-private partnerships for therapeutics, the NIH funding "essentially derisks a project to the point where even if the market is not particularly large, it becomes more attractive for a pharmaceutical company or biotech company to pick up a particular product along the way toward a clinical trial and run with it," he said.
Stem cell research, Collins said, is "a natural area for increased investment and innovation" and has "enormous but uncertain promise for the application for a long list of diseases.
"This is clearly an area we want to see pushed forward with great energy," he said.