Francis Collins on Challenges of the Human Genome Project
  Francis Collins     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

I had to figure out what my own style was, and I don’t think I knew when I got there, what it was. I gradually began to figure out how you do this which is that you find the smartest people that you possibly can and you ask for their advice and then you evaluate it, and sometimes even smart people can give bad advice. So you can’t just sort of take it and say well that’s the right thing to do. And you build consensus, and even when you’re absolutely sure you’re right. You go that extra step of convincing a small group of people that you know are going to be credible that this is the right thing to do before you really make the step. And sometimes that takes an extra month or so but it’s worth it because then you don’t run into the buzz saw of criticism that otherwise surrounded genomics.

But maybe the hardest part was when it was time to get organized to do the large-scale sequencing I realized that we didn’t have a community that was used to working with each other in this regard. In fact, frankly, the way that NIH operates we had inspired these people not to work with each other. How does NIH work? Well, we say we need somebody to do this very important task. Here is a pot of money, send in your applications and compete for it. Well what does that inspire? That inspires each of the groups, whether they’re in St. Louis or Boston or in Houston or wherever to be sort of be at each other’s throats and to say we are better than those guys, give us the money. And all of a sudden we had to work together if we were going to get this done all of those groups have to stop thinking of each other as, you know, the enemy, the people who are going to take away our money. They’d have to think of themselves as a team. And that was a huge culture change that had to be inspired. And I think that a lot of that fell to me to try and inspire that... and the early days of that didn’t go that well.

People look back on the genome project, I do too, as having been an enormous success and it was. But there was some pretty bumpy moments early on where people really didn’t have this quick ability to change the dynamic and say, oh yeah those are my friends now even though they used to be the people that I was trying to put down so that I could put myself up.

Francis Collins earned a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Virginia (1970), a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Yale University (1974), and an M.D. from the University of North Carolina (1977). While a researcher at the University of Michigan (1984-1993), he pioneered “positional cloning” methods which resulted in the Collins team and their collaborators isolating the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, and others.

In 1993 he accepted leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) by becoming Director of the National Center for Human Genome Research (NHGRI). With Dr. Collins as head of the NHGRI, the HGP attained its goal of sequencing all 3 billion base pairs of the human genome.

He has attended all of the Cold Spring Harbor meetings on genomics.