Obama Picks Dr. Francis Collins To Head NIH

President Obama has chosen Dr. Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health. Collins helped unravel the human genetic code. He's also known for finding common ground between a belief in God and science.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Obama has announced his choice to run the National Institutes of Health. If confirmed by the Senate, Francis Collins will take over an agency that spends more than $30 billion per year on biomedical research. He would come at a time of great opportunity for the NIH and also some big challenges. So we're going to talk about that this morning with NPR's science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

Jon, good morning.

JON HAMILTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: The science community knows who Francis Collins is. Tell the rest of us.

HAMILTON: Well, this is that rare guy who is a big time scientist but he's also a good administrator and a good communicator. And he's shown pretty good ability to navigate some of the tricky politics that are involved in science. Early on in his career, he's known for finding the gene for cystic fibrosis and some other genes.

But he's also probably best known because he was in charge of the government's effort to sequence the entire human genome - the human genome project a few years ago. And he got a lot of credit for that because it came in on time -actually, ahead of schedule and under budget.

INSKEEP: You mentioned the tricky politics. Let me raise something that could be a little tricky in this situation. He's an evangelical Christian. Is that something that some people at the NIH are going to be concerned about?

HAMILTON: I think there are some scientists who are concerned about it. On the other hand, he's pretty much of a known quantity to the scientists. He spent 15 years running one of the institutes out of the National Institutes of Health. So you have some kind of feeling for it. And at the time his religion never seemed to be an issue.

He also has disavowed Creationism. He says he sees no conflict between his religious beliefs and the ability to carry out cutting edge science.

INSKEEP: And let me be clear. There's nothing wrong with being an evangelical Christian. Obviously the question here is whether he would have a conflict between his beliefs and the beliefs of some other scientists. And you're saying there doesn't seem to be a big conflict as he sees the world.

HAMILTON: No. And I think if there's anything that makes scientists uncomfortable, it's the fact that he's been very public in talking about it. He wrote a book about it and he speaks frequently about his faith. And I think there are some scientists who just - they don't understand how he can reconcile those two parts of his thinking.

INSKEEP: But he does.

HAMILTON: But he says he does.

INSKEEP: Is this a good time to come in as head of the NIH?

HAMILTON: Mostly, yes. I mean, you know, for years the NIH has had their budget at a sort of plateau. They've been going nowhere and there's been a lot of frustration among scientists that there's not enough money to do the things they want to do.

But right now the NIH is about to get $10 billion - is getting $10 billion of stimulus money. So in the short term, at least, they have a lot of cash to spend and they're going to be able to make a lot of scientists happy. The question is what happens when that money runs out, because that's not built into their base budget.

INSKEEP: So what can they do with that money? They're going to be spending more money looking into human DNA, looking into possible cures for diseases and that sort of thing?

HAMILTON: Indeed. I mean, the problem at the NIH has been that they have stacks and stacks of things that they have deemed worthy research that they want to do that they've had to turn away because they don't have the money.

So for instance, the other day I was out at the National Institute of Mental Health and they were talking about they have had all these projects in autism they've been wanting to take on, but they haven't had the money. Now suddenly they have the money and so they're racing to process all these programs. And it looks like there's going to be tens and tens of millions of dollars spent on autism research that wouldn't have happened without the stimulus package.

INSKEEP: And if Francis Collins is confirmed, he's the guy who gets to spend the money.

HAMILTON: Indeed.

INSKEEP: Jon, thanks very much.

HAMILTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

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