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A Pep Talk for Federal Employees from NIH’s Collins

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NIH Director Francis Collins NIH Director Francis Collins Alex Brandon / AP

As with sequestration in 2013, federal employees now are living in “another of those uncertain times,” said Francis Collins, the award-winning physician-geneticist who directs the National Institutes of Health.

They also are “an amazing group of dedicated, talented and hard-working people who are often unappreciated,” he said on Wednesday at a panel discussion staged by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service to discuss a new survey showing gaps between agencies on employee engagement.

Feds are competitive, Collins added. Folks at NIH with its 27 institutes and centers and 17,000 employees did not fail to notice that they were “edged out” on workforce survey scores by peers at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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NIH for the first time, Collins said, recently released its data from the survey in the name of transparency, despite some staff nervousness.

“NIH is not just an institution, though we are that, but we’re a community,” in which employees are not just “cogs in a wheel,” Collins said. He regularly updates staff on “good news or bad news” beginning with the salutation, “Dear NIH family.”

Like any good agency head, Collins, who gained fame for his work mapping the human genome, boasts of the vital mission and accomplishments of an agency he joined in 1993 and has led since 2008. To wit:

  • Grants to 400,000 scientists in biomedicine at 2,500 institutions;
  • An intramural program with 1,200 scientists and 4,000 post-doctoral students (half of them outside the country);
  • 149 NIH supported researchers who have been sole or shared recipients of 88 Nobel Prizes;
  • A research hospital in Bethesda, Md., that is the largest in the world devoted to clinical trials (where care is paid for by the government).

On Tuesday, Collins welcomed new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price on a tour, wowing the orthopedist with scientists’ work in immunotherapies that have rescued moribund cancer patients.

Like all agency leaders, Collins said, he had sent the White House his resignation letter just before Donald Trump’s Inauguration. But within 36 hours, Collins said, he got an email saying, “You’ve been held over.” Collins was “delighted,” he said, joking that the rejection of his resignation letter must have been due to his bad grammar.

The NIH leader's humor has been evident to colleagues forever, but perhaps the public got its first taste of it in 2013 when Collins released on YouTube his rendition of a self-composed song “Sequester Blues.”

He joked about his fantasies of playing music on the level of Woody Guthrie or the Eagles. The scientist's guitar—designed and built by a hometown pal in Staunton, Va., after Collins’ staff raised money as a gift—features a mother of pearl image of the double helix on its fret board. After a contest among staff, he named the instrument “Rosalind,” for female scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose data was central to the discovery of DNA but who died of cancer before the Nobel Prize committee took notice.

In 1993, when Collins was flourishing at the University of Michigan and received an offer to come to NIH, he was initially skeptical, he said. “My mother advised me not to-- none of my mother’s four boys was gonna be a federal employee,” he recalled. “It was one of the rare moments when I disobeyed my mother. She later admitted she’d been wrong. She was the proudest mom ever to have a fed for a son.”

Charlie Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books and organizational media strategies.

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