The White House decision to tap Francis S. Collins as the president’s acting science adviser signals the administration’s priorities in advancing biomedical research and gives the recently retired NIH chief more influence to pick his successor.
Biden announced two appointments to fill the roles held by Eric Lander, who resigned this month as science adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy after findings that he bullied subordinates and created a hostile work environment.
Collins, 71, who retired in December after more than a dozen years leading the National Institutes of Health, will become the acting science adviser and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Alondra Nelson, the OSTP deputy director for science and society, will lead the office. The science adviser and OSTP director are separate positions, although the same person has often assumed both roles.
“The selections are responsive to the dual importance of a strong OSTP that can drive science and technology solutions to our greatest challenges—and the very specific attention the President wants to give to the creation of a new ARPA-H research and discovery agency, the building of support for a Cancer Moonshot 2.0, the search for a new head of NIH, and the broad advisory work of PCAST,” the White House said in a statement.
The administration said these temporary appointments will “allow OSTP and the President’s Science and Technology agenda to move seamlessly forward under proven leadership,” and that they still plan to nominate Senate-confirmed leadership. Lander said he would retire by Friday.
Kathy L. Hudson, who was Collins’ chief of staff and deputy director for science, outreach, and policy during the Obama administration, called him a great choice who knows most of the key people and issues well.
“He will ably and gracefully do what needs to be done in the short term until they find a permanent person and he can return to his lab and sane sleeping schedule,” she said.
Lander was the first science adviser to serve a Cabinet-level role. Neither Nelson nor Collins are expected to join the Cabinet, but the president’s nominee will likely resume both roles and will join the Cabinet once confirmed.
Popular With Congress
Neither announcement comes as a surprise. Nelson’s name came up early on and frequently as a potential replacement for Lander. She’s a sociologist by training who played a key role in overseeing White House initiatives in restoring trust in government and advancing racial equity, on top of serving as Lander’s deputy.
Collins is a physician-geneticist who worked closely with Lander when Collins led the project to map the human genome, as well as on the proposal for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a new entity that aims to speed up cutting-edge biomedical discoveries.
His popularity on Capitol Hill could help shore up billions of dollars in support for ARPA-H as Congress shapes its spending plans for 2022 and 2023. The Senate had unanimously voted to confirm Collins as NIH director in 2009, in less than a month and without a hearing. And in the last five years as director, Congress increased NIH funding by more than 40%.
“Francis has the capacity to work with Congress and the White House to be able to bring these projects to a reality and get them funded and authorized,” Ellen V. Sigal, founder and chairperson of Friends of Cancer Research, said Thursday. “I don’t think there’s anybody more qualified that can do that.”
Collins already had the respect of the president from when they worked together during the Obama administration, particularly on the Cancer Moonshot initiative that Biden recently relaunched. When Biden visited the NIH campus about a year ago, he opened his remarks by saying one of the first calls he made upon his election was to ask Collins to stay on. His re-appointment as acting science adviser came a little more than a week after Lander announced his exit.
Meanwhile, it took the administration until November to nominate someone to lead the Food and Drug Administration. The Senate confirmed Robert M. Califf as FDA commissioner Feb. 15, one day before the White House announced Collins’s and Nelson’s OSTP roles.
NIH Director Role
With Califf officially in the commissioner’s seat as of Thursday, the Biden administration can turn to filling the role of NIH director. Collins told Bloomberg Law that he can make suggestions but that “it’s the President’s decision. The White House personnel office is really driving this bus.”
But as formal adviser to the president, Collins now has greater influence over whom Biden will ultimately nominate.
“Francis Collins will play a role, but I’m sure that he will listen to others,” Sigal said. “There will be multiple stakeholders that will make the final decision, including the president.”
Collins has said he would like to see a woman or someone from an underrepresented community lead the NIH. “That would be a great statement at the time where we need to further highlight the need for diversity in our workforce,” Collins said in an October interview.
There’s only been one female NIH director since the creation of that position in 1887—the late Bernadine Healy, who tapped Collins to lead the genome institute in 1993.
(Updated to reflect Califf’s role as official FDA commissioner.)
To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org