National Press Club

NIH Director Says US Lax in Cultivating New Scientists

February 26, 2010 | By Ellyn Ferguson |

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The director of the National Institutes of Health oversees a $30 billion budget, 325,000 university researchers and 6,000 NIH scientists at 27 institutes and centers devoted to finding answers to some of the world's most pressing medical and scientific problems.

But Dr. Francis S. Collins also sees himself as an advocate for science by trying to explain the complex and technical to a larger society of non-scientists.

It's difficult to break through Americans' aversion to hard science, Collins said at a Luncheon Feb. 26.

Fifteen-year-olds in the United States ranked 29th in science achievement among other 15-year-olds in 57 countries, he said. Nearly half of all U.S. 12th graders scored below basic in sciences, while a survey of American students found 84 percent would rather go to the dentist, eat their vegetables or clean their rooms rather than do their math homework.

The audience chuckled heartily, but it's serious issue, he said.

"The future of biomedical research is in danger because of something we're not doing. We're not doing a good job if cultivating the next generation of scientists," Collins said.

Collins will do his part to talk up science on National Lab Day to biology students at a public school in the District of Columbia.

They're likely to hear him talk about NIH projects to apply new technologies to understanding cells; to explore the efficacy of medical treatments; to tackle provide medical invest; to develop new methods for tackling malaria, tuberculosis and diabetes in poor countries and building the research capability in those countries.

And the students also may hear him talk about discoveries that hold the key to life-changing therapeutic treatments.

Collins told his Press Club audience he "literally got cold chills" reading a scientific paper on a breakthrough that uses cell plasticity to change a skin cell to a neuron or an islet cell in the pancreas.