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Genome leader is named to head NIH Many praise choice, but some have reservations. SCIENCE / MEDICINE

Genome leader is named to head NIH Many praise choice, but some have reservations. SCIENCE / MEDICINE

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President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated Dr. Francis S. Collins, a pioneering geneticist who led the government's successful effort to sequence the human genome, as head of the National Institutes of Health.

Collins' selection, which had been rumored for weeks, was praised by top scientists and research advocacy organizations for whom the health institute is a crucial patron. Based in Bethesda, Md., the NIH is the most important source of research financing in the world; over the next 14 months it will dole out about $37 billion in research grants and $4 billion in spending on research programs at its Maryland campus.

But praise for Collins, 59, was not universal or entirely enthusiastic. Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, called Collins' selection a "reasonable choice."

Others privately expressed deeper unease. There are two basic objections to Collins. The first is his public embrace of Christianity. He wrote a book called "The Language of God," and he has given many talks and interviews in which he described conversion to Christianity as a 27-year-old medical student. Religion and genetic research have long had a fraught relationship, and some in the field complain about what they see as Collins' evangelism.

The other objection stems from his leadership of the Human Genome Project, which is part of the NIH. Although Collins was widely praised in 2003 when the effort succeeded, the hopes that the discovery would yield many promising medical interventions have greatly dimmed, discouraging many.

Collins cannot be blamed for the unexpected scientific hurdles facing genetic research, but he played an important role in raising expectations impossibly high. In interviews, he called the effort "the most important and the most significant project that humankind has ever mounted" and predicted it would quickly allow everyone to know the genetic risks for many diseases.

Some scientists and disease-research advocates criticized the extraordinary amount of money and attention the sequencing effort garnered, saying it distracted from more fruitful areas of research.

Fran Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, said Wednesday that the NIH "needs visionary leadership willing to challenge the present stagnation at the institute. It may be difficult for Francis, since he has been a part of the system."

Collins' confirmation by the Senate is all but certain.

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