NIH Director Francis Collins at ASCB: We Need More Sexy Scientists

Photo by Karras Photography*

I had mentioned that I was hoping to get a personal interview with Francis Collins, newly appointed NIH director, during his visit to the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) meeting. Turns out Dr. Collins wasn’t available for a long interview, but I was able to meet him briefly after his engaging talk following Rudolf Jaenisch’s excellent keynote last night in San Diego.

Dr. Collins talked about his first 116 days as NIH director, including the work they’ve done to quickly process stimulus grants and disburse the funds and to provide important guidelines for stem cell research. The clear message of his 30 minute talk, which seemed to fly by due to his ‘charismatically humble’ style, was that we scientists, now more than ever, need to communicate the importance of our research more broadly so that we will continue to garner the necessary funding.

Dr. Collins likened his first few months as NIH director to ‘drinking from a fire hose on a roller coaster,’ partly due to the large number of the grants that were received as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Collins said they expected about 3,000 but instead received 20,000. Of the $10 Billion appropriated to NIH from the ARRA, $5 Billion was awarded by October 1st 2009 for 12,000 projects. It is estimated that 50,000 new jobs will be generated over two years. Collins indicated that the NIH will not be biased towards ‘big science’ under his leadership, as might be feared from his involvement in the human genome project. He pointed out the breadth of the ARRA funding, from The Cancer Genome Atlas to the ASCB’s proposed online image library.

Collins also talked about the amazing progress in stem cell research, triggered by President Obama’s signing of the Stem Cell Executive Order March 9th of this year. Since that time, the NIH has worked hard to publish guidelines and has very recently (Dec. 2) approved 13 human embryonic stem cell lines and is approving another 27 (Dec. 4–to be announced soon). You can learn more at Collins also discussed great NIH funding programs to encourage innovation through their High-Risk Research Initiatives.

Collins’ passion for science was clear as he urged scientists to get more involved in educating the public about the science that we do so that it continues to be funded. ASCB has set up a web page that makes it easy to get the word out–check out Collins also talked National Lab Day, a non-profit group which aims to connect scientists and grade 6-12 students, create local communities to foster collaborations and improve the quality of science education. The website lists projects for which teachers need resources, and will also connect scientists with those that need their expertise. (Would this be a great charity event for the SDBN in 2010?)

It’s also clear that Collins is still engaged firsthand with science and scientists, as he enjoyed friendly chats with Rudolf Jaenisch and other ASCB members, and was seen heading towards the party after the session. He also has gone ‘outside of his comfort zone‘ to promote science. He was asked by Stephen Colbert to ‘take his glasses off and shake out his hair’ to make science ‘sexy,’ and Collins in turn asked the ASCB audience to do this as well. What he meant is that we should go outside of our comfort zones to promote the importance of our work. Tell our friends, neighbors, and politicians about what we’re doing and why it’s important, similar to the IamBiotech campaign which we’ve discussed. Collins suggested that one of the best ways is to invite your political representatives to tour your laboratory. Why not? He said they’ll likely view it as a refreshing opportunity to hear some good news about your work.

Personally, I was very inspired by Dr. Collins’ speech. It is clear that he is a scientist at heart, but not afraid to be creative and vocal in promoting science, and it is very encouraging to have someone like him at the ‘helm’ of the NIH. At SDBN events, we’ve talked about the increasing power of the individual or small business to make a difference. How can we be creative in our local industry and community to make a difference? Comments welcome below, and fill out the to get involved!

To share this post easily use the URL

*Photo courtesy of ASCB, generously provided by Karras Photography