Francis S. Collins, the scientist who led the U.S. government drive to map the human genetic code, is the leading candidate to run the National Institutes of Health, a source familiar with the selection process said.
Screening for Collins, 59, is in the final stages, said the source. Collins would take over an agency that President Obama has made key to his plans for reviving the U.S. economy and overhauling healthcare. The 27 institutes and centers under the NIH umbrella employ more than 18,000 people and fund research at thousands of universities and medical schools.
The former head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, a member agency, Collins became a driving force in the race to catalog the 3 billion letters of the human genetic code. As director of the institutes, Collins will face calls to boost spending on cancer research and free science from politics as well as financial conflicts of interest.
“NIH is a huge enterprise, and I think Francis has very good experience with getting the best out of a huge enterprise from what he did in the genome project,” said David Baltimore, a biology professor at Caltech who won the 1975 Nobel Prize in medicine, in a telephone interview in February. “He’s also very well liked in Congress.”
Collins didn’t respond to efforts to reach him. The White House declined to comment.
Obama pledged at his swearing-in to “restore science to its rightful place” in government programs.
Collins has “done things many scientists wish they could do once in their lifetime, and he’s done it repeatedly” said Elias A. Zerhouni, the former head of the institutes, in a telephone interview.