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Blog  /  10.25.2021

Communicating Science Through Words and Song

“It has been an incredible privilege to lead this great agency for more than a decade,” said Dr. Collins. “I love this agency and its people so deeply that the decision to step down was a difficult one, done in close counsel with my wife, Diane Baker, and my family. I am proud of all we’ve accomplished. I fundamentally believe, however, that no single person should serve in the position too long, and that it’s time to bring in a new scientist to lead the NIH into the future. I’m most grateful and proud of the NIH staff and the scientific community, whose extraordinary commitment to lifesaving research delivers hope to the American people and the world every day.”
October 5, 2021 HHS Press Release

Dr. Francis Collins’ recent announcement that he will end his tenure as the director of the National Institutes of Health took many people in the public health community by surprise, including myself. Serving in this role for more than 12 years, he has remained a steadfast and dedicated physician-geneticist while leading a federal agency that has kept pace with much technological and societal change. His passion for the people and work at NIH has always been at the forefront of his leadership, which I have admired along with his significant achievements.

NIH research contributed to providing a solution to the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history. Two new mRNA vaccines, manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, are being administered to millions of people around the world to combat SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. There were decades of work completed by NIH to build the scientific foundation for these life-saving vaccines. I, along with many others, breathed a sigh of relief once I was fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We owe a great debt to the people at NIH, like Dr. Collins, who worked tirelessly to bring us these vaccines to the U.S. so quickly and safely.

Earlier in his career, in June 2000, as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, Dr. Collins joined President Bill Clinton to announce the first survey of the entire human genome, catapulting disease research into the age of precision medicine. Historically, doctors had to make most recommendations for prevention and treatment of diseases based on their experience or what was known about the expected response of an average patient. Precision medicine moves us away from “one-size-fits-all” medicine to an innovative approach that takes into account individual differences in patients’ genes, environments, and lifestyles. Millions of people have already benefited by precision medicine that has grown directly from biomedical research and the mapping of the human genome.

These two significant contributions are fitting bookends of a storied career, but throughout his decade plus of extraordinary leadership, Dr. Collins also established several important NIH initiatives to address other key U.S. challenges. Notably, the UNITE Initiative addresses structural racism and promotes racial equity and inclusion; the HEAL Initiative to improves treatments for opioid misuse and addiction; and the Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities Initiative, supports communities most affected by the pandemic and reduces health disparities. His work also helped to shift the research landscape by implementing clinical trials reforms and the Next Generation Researchers Initiative.

A common thread throughout all his work was (and still is) his ability to tell the scientific story. He makes science approachable. As a public health communicator, I have a tremendous appreciation of his commitment to science communication and ability to engage people across the political spectrum to ensure much needed support for the NIH mission to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.

As many of us have seen and experienced throughout the pandemic, sharing accurate, evidence-based information is critical to our health and well-being. Sometimes this can be challenging, even for the most skilled scientific communicator. It comes back to being approachable, being able to break down the science, and being a trusted voice.

Science is an iterative process and whether sharing information with a researcher or your neighbor, it is important to meet people where they are. The platform used to communicate can be just as important as what you are communicating. And Dr. Collins does just that, not only by what he is saying but where. He regularly conducts media interviews, writes social posts and blogs and answers questions everywhere from scientific meetings to “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. But what can truly endear an expert to the public are the more unique avenues. For Dr. Collins this is through song, including this creative Somewhere Past the Pandemic rendition in 2020.

As Dr. Collins plans for his next chapter of life, please join me in a digital “toast” to this man who has helped save and improve millions of lives around the world and changed medicine for the better, all with a smile and great humility.

Thank you, Dr. Collins. Keep telling the scientific story. We are listening (and singing along).

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