This will be, Collins believes, "the century of biology." Other countries have "read our playbook," seeing how biomedical research can reduce health costs, produce jobs and enhance competitiveness.
Meanwhile, America's great research universities award advanced degrees to young scientists from abroad, and then irrational immigration policy compels them to leave and add value to other countries. And now the sequester discourages and disperses scientific talent.
In the private sector, where investors expect a quick turnaround, it is difficult to find dollars for a 10-year program.
The public sector, however, with its different time horizon, can fund for the long term, thereby drawing young scientists into career trajectories and collaborations impossible elsewhere.
Collins is haunted by knowledge that the flow of scientific talent cannot be turned on and off like a faucet.
Unfortunately, recent government behavior has damaged the cause of basic science.
It has blurred the distinction between fundamental research and technical refinements (often of 19th-century technologies — faster trains, better batteries, longer-lived light bulbs).
It has sown confusion about the difference between supporting scientific research and practicing industrial policy with subsidies — often incompetently and sometimes corruptly dispensed — for private corporations oriented to existing markets rather than unimagined
And beginning with the indiscriminate and ineffective 2009 stimulus, government has incited indiscriminate hostility to public spending.
NIH scientists seek intensely practical, meaning preventive and therapeutic, things that can save society more than any sequester can.
The scientists also know, however, that the enchantment of science is in the phrase "You never know."
You never know where things might lead. Sixty years ago, James Watson and Francis Crick published a paper in the journal Nature describing the double-helix structure of DNA and noting almost laconically that it "suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."
They could not have known that this would lead to Collins' career, which has led him here to days of dismay about exhilarations postponed.
George Will's email address is georgew...@washpost.com.