Even though he described himself as a “neuroscience wannabe,” genomics expert and National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins was in his element Tuesday while addressing the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, an event that drew 29,000 biomedical researchers to Chicago this week.
Collins, who has appeared on Modern Healthcare's 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare list six times, wore a tie polka-dotted with little brains for the occasion. (“If not today, when can I wear it?” he asked.) And he focused his talk on the advances being made under President Barack Obama's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which has invested $85 million in research this fiscal year.
(He highlighted a discovery that people with positive traits such as a healthy sense of well-being have stronger connections between certain regions of the brain than those with negative traits such as tendencies toward anger or substance abuse. He added, however, that it's unknown which is the cause and which is the effect.)
But the NIH's ability to support groundbreaking research is threatened by the political discord in Washington, Collins said, even though the White House and Congress say they want to boost its funding.
The president's fiscal 2016 budget calls for adding $1 billion to the $30.3 billion the NIH received in 2015. But Congress has called for even larger increases, Collins said. The proposed House of Representatives' budget includes a $1.1 billion raise for NIH. The Senate has proposed a $2 billion boost in fiscal 2016.
“The problem is that none of this has come to pass,” said Collins, explaining how there is still no fiscal 2016 budget and how the government is running on a continuing resolution that maintains current spending levels until Dec. 11.
“We don't know what's going to happen on Dec. 12, folks,” Collins said while urging the research community to speak out about dwindling government support.
Collins began his talk by proudly telling how the NIH had supported the research done by two of this year's Nobel Prize winners for chemistry, Paul Modrich from the Duke University School of Medicine and Dr. Aziz Sancar from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He noted that the winner for economics, Angus Deaton of Princeton University, also had received an NIH grant for his research on measuring poverty among the elderly.
Collins also promoted NIH's Big Data to Knowledge initiative, which seeks to manage the massive amounts of information the NIH collects while seeking to “foster an open digital ecosystem.”
Attending the meeting was Dr. Simmie Foster, who has been doing postdoctoral research at Boston Children's Hospital exploring the interaction between the sensory and immune systems in chronic pain.
Foster listened to Collins and was reminded how anxiety over funding trickles down from deans to the researchers below them. Many of her peers are looking at alternative careers and are leaving academia to take industry jobs in biotech, “policy work,” science writing or patent law, she said.
Foster added, however, that she was encouraged by Collins' observation that different scientific fields were beginning to “learn each other's language.” She's hoping the same happens between the immunologists and neuroscientists she works with.
“Collaboration between disciplines is the way to go,” Foster said. “The two fields don't really communicate with each other, and—because of that—you're missing out on what both have to say.”