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NIH chief to Trump: Biomedical research is the best economic stimulus

Genome mapper Francis Collins, who has led the U.S. National Institutes of Health for nearly all of President Barack Obama's tenure, has yet to have a discussion about the future of his agency or his job with President-elect Donald Trump.

But if he gets that chance, Collins said he would urge Trump to advocate for strong and continued funding for the NIH and the other U.S. government science agencies, arguing "research is the best way to stimulate the economy."

"I would love to have that conversation," Collins told S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Every dollar the NIH awards in grants to researchers at academic institutions or biotechnology firms and other small businesses has a two-fold return on investment over one year, he said.

With a 2016 budget of $32 billion, the NIH is the largest single public funder of biomedical research in the world.

"Every state and almost every congressional district has earned a share of this investment," the NIH stated on its website.

Discoveries arising from NIH-funded research provide a foundation for the U.S. biomedical industry, which contributes $69 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product and supports about 7 million jobs, according to the agency. In 2015, the NIH's extramural funding generated an estimated $60 billion in economic output nationwide.

The NIH's Human Genome Project, an international research effort to sequence and map all genes, which Collins led for the U.S. government before becoming NIH director, has thus far resulted in nearly $1 trillion of economic growth — a 178-fold return on investment — at a cost of $2 per year for each American.

Biomedical research, Collins said, is a "winner of an argument" for job creation and other economic stimulus.

But the NIH's budget has remained relatively flat over the past decade, except for some extra spending it received this past year, he said.

The NIH chief often has been on Capitol Hill lamenting the fast pace at which China is catching up with the U.S. in its annual investment in biomedical research. While the U.S. government's annual investment in biomedical research has remained relatively flat, China has been increasing its investment by 30% in recent years, according to Collins.

"If we care about America continuing to lead in this space, we need to be sure we are supporting all of those young scientists who are full of great ideas, but are a little nervous about whether they are going to get support," Collins said in a Dec. 13 interview at the White House following Obama's signing ceremony for the 21st Century Cures Act, which authorizes $4.8 billion over 10 years for the NIH for research into the brain, cancer and precision medicine.

That Cures funding, however, must be allotted annually by Congress, with no guarantee lawmakers will come through with the money, he noted.

"The overall need for support at this time — where science has never had more potential, never had more promise for making discoveries and changing our understanding for our own health, developing cures — is great," Collins said. "We are really on the path right now toward an accelerated pace in almost every area of research."

Collins said he "would want to be sure that message is heard loud and clear" if he gets the opportunity to sit down with Trump to discuss the future of the NIH.

Collins said it had been his plan to move on to something else after Obama leaves office.

Like other Obama appointees, Collins was required to submit his resignation by Dec. 7.

But if Trump asks him to stay on, Collins said he would do it.

"For me, having the chance to be a public servant in the position of the director of the NIH has been an incredible privilege," he said. "This feels to me like this is a place where I could do some good. So if it were asked of me, I would consider it a privilege to continue. But it's not my call."

If he is not asked by Trump to continue as the NIH director, Collins said for the immediate future he would go back to his lab at the agency, where he has ongoing research projects studying diabetes and aging with an "exceptionally talented" group of post-doctoral scientists.

"The idea of being able to spend more time with them would be very appealing, while thinking about what the next chapter might be," Collins said.

He declined to comment on whether he had ever considered joining Obama in what has been rumored as a possible post-White House pursuit for the president: starting a venture capital firm to fund science and technology startups.

Collins acknowledged Obama, who became the first sitting U.S. president to guest edit a magazine edition in November with Wired's "The Frontiers" issue, which focused on innovation and research, "loves science."

"And he's done great things for science," Collins said.

Whatever the future holds for Collins, he made one thing clear: "I don't think I'm quite yet ready to retire."