Dr. Francis Collins is a giant, figuratively and literally,in the world of medicine. Standing 6 feet 5, with floppy, boyish hair and soft-spoken enthusiasm
, Collins is one of two scientists – Craig Venter is the other – whose race to find the blueprint of human DNA, ended in a virtual tie – 10 years ago, this month. Today, Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health. He spoke with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the promise and frustrations of genetic research, his sometimes-controversial religious faith and about the thorny question of whether drug companies should own the information in our DNA. He also shared his concern that the United States is losing its leadership role in medical research, to countries like China and India.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Are those our biggest competitors?
Dr. Francis Collins: They are in terms of their rates of growth, and in terms of their training of PhDs. China trains a lot more PhDs than the U.S. does now. Interesting statistics, because I think young people notice what’s going on and decide where they’re going to put their own efforts. In the U.S., the percentage of undergraduates who major in science and engineering is 15 percent. In China, that’s 50 percent. In Singapore, it’s 65 percent. So what’s wrong with this picture? In America, we seem to have accepted the fact that maybe science and technology is not our area of opportunity, in the way that other people have perceived.
Gupta: I remember when you were my professor at Michigan [when Gupta was in medical school], we had this overwhelming belief, and I think a well-founded one, that the United States was Number One when it came to science, and when it came to medicine. Are we still at the pinnacle?
Collins: We are certainly a leader in biomedical research, but not in the way that we were 20 years ago. At that point we were the unchallenged leader, and now we have slipped. We are no longer the dominant force. Our support for research has flattened over the last 20 years. Someone who comes to me now with their best ideas and a grant proposal, and they want to see whether we can help them do that research, they only have one chance in five of actually getting funded – in the past that was more like one in three. Maybe in the next year or two that’s going to drop even further because the economy is struggling. So that’s not a good sign, and it’s certainly also troubling to see that people who want to get into science are having trouble staying, especially young investigators. If you failed to get supported, after a couple of tries, maybe you’ll go and do something else. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is putting huge investments into biomedical research, particularly China and India.
Gupta: When you’re talking about resources, you’re talking about money? Specifically?
Collins: I’m talking about money, I’m talking about young talent that is struggling to sort of stay involved and trying not to give up and go to law school.
To see more of this Colorful Conversation, watch “Sanjay Gupta MD” 7:30 am ET Saturday and Sunday.