Who is in Charge of NIH?


White House officials have yet to name a permanent director for the National Institutes of Health, though Tabak and Fauci are in charge for now.

NIH observers are hopeful that Patty Murray and Richard Burr will move quickly to confirm a new director, although that is no guarantee.

Francis Collins

Collins was appointed long-term Director of NIH by two presidents and is one of only a select few political appointees who has held that post over multiple presidencies. His influence with Congress and significant discoveries at his lab have made genomic medicine possible.

Homeschooled as a child, Collins became an accomplished scientist whose early work helped identify the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis at Michigan, where his gene-hunting techniques led the Human Genome Project.

Since his appointment, he has spearheaded groundbreaking science projects such as the 2015 Precision Medicine Initiative and All of Us (which seeks to build an online database on the genetic basis of disease by collecting health data from one million volunteers). However, due to Washington’s changing political environment, he may face a more challenging confirmation process than previous nominees – although he still enjoys the support of Senate HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray and Ranking Member Richard Burr – both with extensive committee experience.

Lawrence Tabak

Francis Collins, former Director of NIH, and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci have left behind big shoes to fill at America’s premier public funder for biomedical research. Still, with new Congress coming into force, they pose potential threats to its goals.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced on Dec. 19 that dental researcher Lawrence Tabak would take over as acting Director of NIH starting on Dec. 20, serving until an administration nomination of a permanent director is confirmed by Congress. Tabak has served as principal deputy Director since 2010, having also held that title from 2000-10 as Acting Director for the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NICR). Tabak maintains an active laboratory to study glycoproteins’ structure, biosynthesis, and function.

Tabak graduated from the University at Buffalo College of Dental Medicine in 1972. Since then, he has enjoyed government and academic positions without much controversy. He follows President Obama’s order to ease stem cell research regulations while supporting work involving fetal tissue even when opposed by religious groups.

Elias Zerhouni

Elias Zerhouni served as 15th Director of NIH from 2002 to 2008. He arrived at Johns Hopkins as a radiology resident in 1975, barely speaking English, and later rose to become Chairman of the Radiology and Biomedical Engineering Department.

During his tenure, Dr. Burwell established the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research: an initiative-oriented plan which increased NIH’s ability to react quickly to emerging scientific opportunities and public health challenges. In addition, he introduced an office designed to accelerate collaborative projects while better-identifying research priorities within the agency.

He returned to JHU as a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering in 2009 after having served as executive vice dean from 1995-2002. Like Fauci, Collins is a celebrity within Washington; playing an integral part in responding to COVID-19 pandemic response efforts by the NIH may help shield him from congressional scrutiny or any reprisals like Collins has experienced.

John O’Keefe

John O’Keefe, an approachable, guitar-playing neuroscientist serving as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has made it his mission to advance research on cancer and other debilitating illnesses. Additionally, he has guided the agency through difficult times like President Donald Trump’s cutting off of federally funded fetal tissue research and scrutiny of foreign scientists’ ties back home countries.

He has also led the launch of ARPA-H, created by Congress to speed drug discovery. However, ARPA-H’s goals often overlap with NIH administered by the Department of Health and Human Services – making its implementation challenging.

Elon Musk made headlines this week when he tweeted that Christine Grady, Fauci’s wife and the director of bioethics at NIH, serves as his ethics monitor. However, this statement was inaccurate: Grady oversees a separate group within NIH that does not interact directly with Fauci or any of his researchers at any of its 27 institutes and centers.