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2009 AAAS Philip Hauge Abelson Award Presented to Francis S. Collins, M.D., for Exceptional Service to Science and Society

Francis S. Collins, M.D., director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been selected to receive the 2009 AAAS Philip Hauge Abelson Award in honor of his lifelong, unusually effective efforts to responsibly advance and communicate science.

In particular, the AAAS award selection committee announced: “Dr. Collins was selected on the basis of his extraordinary skills as a scientist, as a spokesperson for the ethical and responsible use of science, as a communicator with the public and policy-makers, and for his pioneering leadership of major, highly successful federal scientific initiatives.”

Alan I. Leshner, AAAS chief executive office and executive publisher of the journal Science, said: “Francis Collins is perhaps best known for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and for his pioneering leadership of the Human Genome Project. But his contributions to U.S. science and to human welfare extend well beyond specific research areas. He is an exceptionally skilled science communicator who continues to promote broad public engagement with key issues at the intersection of science and society. He has emerged as a compelling role model for the next generation of scientist-citizens.”

A physician-scientist, Dr. Collins became the 16th director of the NIH on 17 August 2009, having been nominated by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

He earned his Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry from Yale University in 1974, and his M.D. with honors from the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine in Chapel Hill in 1977. Following a residency in internal medicine at UNC, he returned to Yale in the early 1980s and developed a technique called “positional cloning,” which helps biologists to locate genes within the mass of DNA. He then spent nine years at the University of Michigan Medical School, rising quickly from assistant to full professor, becoming a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and gaining prominence for identifying the genes associated with cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease, neurofibromatosis, multiple endocrine neoplasia type 1, and the M4 type of adult acute leukemia.

In 1993, Collins succeeded James Watson as the director of the NIH’s National Center for Human Genome Research, which in 1997 became the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). The outcome of his direction of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium is now well-known: the Human Genome Project (HGP) met project milestones ahead of schedule and under budget, and in June 2000, a working draft of the human genome was announced in a ceremony featuring Dr. Collins along with private-sector scientist Dr. Craig Venter and President Bill Clinton. An initial analysis was published in February 2001, and a high-quality, reference sequence was completed in April 2003.

Behind the scenes, Dr. Collins developed and sustained a strong, collegial partnership among a coalition of federal programs, and he invented new ways to support and coordinate “big science” in a biomedical research environment. He further was able to bring about free and rapid access to genetic information for the worldwide scientific community, and he helped to extend genomics research into new, large-scale projects. These included the sequencing of other organisms to help interpret the human genome, an encyclopedia of all genes and other functional elements of the human genome, an atlas of the genomic changes involved in cancer, and the HapMap and other catalogs of human genetic variation. During his 15 years as director, Dr. Collins also was the public face of the Human Genome Project and related endeavors, and a capable defender of those initiatives before Congress.

At the same time, the AAAS award selection committee noted: “Dr. Collins has long been keenly attuned to the broader implications and potential uses and misuses of genetics. He saw the need for, and succeeded in developing, a funding mechanism to conduct research on the ethical, legal, and social implications of human genetics.”

For years, Dr. Collins championed legislation that would prohibit discrimination by employers and insurers on the basis of genetic information, and he was instrumental in getting Congress to pass—and President George W. Bush to sign—the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, known as GINA. He is a strong proponent of personalized medicine, and he has authored a book on the issue, The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine, to be published by HarperCollins.

Dr. Collins’s achievements have been recognized by numerous organizations. He has served on the editorial boards of numerous scientific journals. He was elected to membership in both the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

For all these accomplishments, Dr. Collins was characterized by his award nominators as “the archetype of the public servant-scientist that the Abelson Award was created to recognize.”

The Abelson Award was inspired by Philip Hauge Abelson, who served as long-time senior advisor to AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and editor of the Association’s journal, Science. Abelson, who also served as president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, died 1 August 2004, following more than 60 years of service to science and society.

The award is given annually to either a public servant in recognition of sustained exceptional contributions to advancing science, or to a scientist whose career has been distinguished both for scientific achievement and for other notable services to the scientific community.  The award was established in 1985 by the AAAS Board of Directors and consists of a plaque and an honorarium of $5000. The award will be awarded to Dr. Collins during the 176th AAAS Annual Meeting in San Diego, which will take place 18-22 February 2010. The awards ceremony and reception will be held at the San Diego Convention Center, Room 6C, on Saturday, 20 February at 5:00 p.m.

Get more information on AAAS awards. 


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs