New NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins singled out global health as one of five areas he wants to focus on during his tenure, citing it as an example of "soft power" the United States cannot afford to pass up.
In his inaugural address to NIH staff August 17, Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), said global health research "should be a conversation" with other countries, but not one in which "the great United States tells the world what the answers are without listening to their experiences."
He listed global health - along with technology, translation, outcomes research and funding - as "areas of opportunity" he is interested in pursuing.
Collins said, "The ability of NIH to play a major role in U.S. soft power seems like an opportunity we should not pass up," a chance to be "more of a doctor to the world" than a "soldier to the world" by helping control both infectious and noncommunicable diseases. "And we should, in the process of doing so, make sure we're focusing not just on doing research in those countries but helping them develop their own research capacity for the longer term."
"He is a global thinker and global health research is clearly in his vision as a new and challenging frontier of biomedical science," says Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. Glass.
Before leaving NHGRI in 2008 after 15 years, Collins was manager of the International HapMap Project, a private-public research collaboration to discover, describe and publicly map common variations in the human genome and was an originator of the global Cancer Genome Atlas, which applies gene sequencing technology to better understand the molecular basis of cancer.
Collins told NIH staff gathered at the Natcher auditorium on his first day in office about his experience volunteering at a hospital in Nigeria earlier in his career, calling it "one of the things that had the greatest influence" on his approach to health research. "I certainly got exposed to the challenges of trying to practice medicine in a way that's very different than what you're used to here and certainly got familiar with diseases we don't see here that are really quite devastating in their impact."
In answer to a question about international collaboration, Collins said, "It should be a conversation because otherwise it would be seen as the great United States telling the rest of the world what the answers are without having necessarily lived their experience.
"... The best thing we can do if we're going to be serious about global health ... and the people at Fogarty and some of the institutes have done this quite beautifully ... we would not want to do this alone and we would do this with some of the philanthropies."
Collins said, "There seems to be great deal of enthusiasm in ratcheting up" global health research and training. "The science is more compelling than it might have been a few years ago in terms of what we might do, and the needs are great. ... This is a great time to be promoting that."
Collins also praised Fogarty's passport and visa section, specifically naming Sandra Fuentes, Marcia Smith and Jeff Chen as "the reason that NIH is so special" and citing their great determination and dedication to get visas for scientists who are such an important part of our community. (See People in the News article "Four receive NIH Director's Awards.")