The new director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, has one main goal for the giant research agency -- getting more money.
On his first day on the job Monday, Collins told reporters he would press Congress for more stable funding of the agency, which has a budget this year of $30.9 billion.
The NIH has complained of flat funding in recent years, which Collins says translates to 17 percent less spending power since 2003. As a result, researchers are demoralized, good ideas never see the light of day and the United States is losing its lead in medical research, he said.
Predictable, stable funding has to be our number one priority, Collins said.
The economic stimulus package approved in March allocates $10.4 billion in extra money to NIH for 2009 and 2010. What keeps me awake is ... what is going to happen after two years of (stimulus package) funding ends, Collins said.
He said NIH got 22,000 grant proposals for that extra $10 billion. There is fabulous science there. This tells you there is pent-up demand, he said. But only 3 percent of the ideas will get funding, he said.
He said NIH spending offers all sorts of value, including the potential of helping President Barack Obama's healthcare reform efforts by funding and conducting studies that show which treatments work best.
For example, the NIH-sponsored Antihypertensive and Lipid-Lowering Treatment to Prevent Heart Attack Trial or ALLHAT found in 2008 that cheap, generic, diuretics protect better against heart disease than newer, more expensive drugs.
Collins has a pet project that he would like the agency to pursue -- a so-called prospective study of 500,000 people that would look at all aspects of their health over decades to determine the underlying causes of disease.
I think if we don't start a study of this sort in the next 10 years, we will be kicking ourselves, he said.
Collins also floated the idea of drug companies paying royalties for government research they benefit from. NIH and the 325,000 researchers it funds do much of the basic scientific research that leads to drug development. The most promising work then goes to pharmaceutical companies, which develop and profit from those drugs.
Collins opposes the idea of limiting what companies can charge for drugs, but said the idea of royalties to pay back the taxpayers might work. You are engineering a system that allows some payback to the public, he said.
He also wants to encourage younger scientists, noting that most U.S. researchers do not get grants to do their own work until age 42. And he wants to do a better job of communicating NIH research to the public.
Maybe I should start tweeting, he said, referring to the popular Twitter social networking tool. We have a lot of cool stuff going on, and we don't necessarily tell the world about it, he said.
Collins, an evangelical Christian, also said he had resigned from the BioLogos Foundation he has just founded to address the harmony of science and faith.