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Eric Green Says Planned NHGRI Reorg Reflects 'New Era' of Genomics, Expanding Mission of Institute


By Monica Heger

This article was originally published Jan. 23.

The National Human Genome Research Institute has proposed a broad reorganization that will better reflect the goals of its strategic plan and signal the beginning of a "new era" of genomics, according to NHGRI director Eric Green.

In a public webinar held last week to discuss the restructuring plan, Green outlined the proposed vision for NHGRI, which would add six new divisions to the institute. The plan would have the biggest impact on the Division of Extramural Research, splitting it into four new groups, while the Division of Intramural Research would remain unchanged and the Office of the Director would see minor changes.

The four new programs that would arise from the Division of Extramural Research include the Division of Genome Science, the Division of Genomic Medicine, the Division of Genomics and Society, and the Division of Extramural Operations. The Office of the Director, meantime, would be divided into two divisions: The Division of Policy, Communications and Education; and the Division of Management.

The restructuring is necessary, said Green, to better reflect NHGRI's expanding mission. Until 2003, NHGRI's primary goal was the Human Genome Project, he noted. After that was completed, the institute created a strategic plan that served as a guide for seven years but, he said, is no longer relevant.

Major advances in genomics and genomic technology "made us realize several years ago that there was another need for strategic planning," Green said, which would "one day lead to the realization of genomic medicine."

The "base pairs-to-bedside" plan, available on NHGRI's website, was published last February in Nature (IS 2/15/2011), and the proposed reorganization is a step toward implementing that plan.

Under the proposed plan, the previous functions of the Division of Extramural Research will be split across four new divisions:

• The Division of Genome Science will be research-oriented, focusing on basic science, and will house the large-scale sequencing program.

• The Division of Genomic Medicine will be more clinically oriented. Additionally, the Office of Population Genomics, which is currently housed under the Office of the Director, will be moved into this division.

• The Division of Genomics and Society will include the Ethical, Legal, and Societal Implications division and other "endeavors we think will be important in the future in contemplating how genomics will play a role in medicine," Green said.

• The Division of Extramural Operations will primarily be responsible for reviewing grants.

Each division will have a director who will report directly to Green.

The proposed restructuring will better equip NHGRI to address the five major research areas it outlined in its strategic plan, said Green. Those areas include: the structure of genomes, the biology of genomes, the biology of disease, advancing the science of medicine, and improving the effectiveness of healthcare.

The newly created Division of Genome Science would focus on the structure of genomes and the biology of genomes, while the newly created Division of Genomic Medicine would focus on advancing the science of medicine and improving the effectiveness of healthcare. The two divisions would overlap in the area of biology and disease, which Green said would be a critical area of research in the coming years.

The Division of Genomics and Society, meantime, would be "crosscutting" and focus on projects that span all research domains, Green said.

During the public comment portion of the webinar, some researchers expressed concern that the proposed restructuring would cause "siloing," forcing researchers to pin projects to one division or another.

Manolis Kellis, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, questioned how funding would be allocated under the new proposal, and whether research groups would have to link their proposal to a specific division.

Green said that siloing was the "number one thing that has been internally discussed," and is a "legitimate concern." As such, he said that funding would not be attributed to specific divisions, but to initiatives.

For example, he said, the four-year, $416 million Genome Sequencing and Analysis Program "cuts across all divisions." The program itself has a total budget with different aspects falling in the genome science division, the genomic medicine division, and the genomics and society division.

For instance, the Large Scale Genome Sequencing Centers' portion of the program would fall mainly in the Division of Genome Science, while the newly created Mendelian Disorders Genome Centers and Clinical Sequencing Exploratory Research programs would fall into the Division of Genomic Medicine as well as the Division of Genomics and Society.

Green said the Genome Sequencing and Analysis Program one example of how projects will be funded in the future.

Another concern was the lack of a dedicated division for bioinformatics. Peter D'Eustachio, a professor of biochemistry at New York University Medical Center, said that it was "startling not to see that computational feature recognized explicitly," particularly since a major "recurring issue is what to do with the information" that can be generated from new sequencing technology.

"The same way we need bigger sequencing machines, we need bigger, better computers to keep track of all the data, and we also need smarter computers, programs, and people to use that information," he said.

Green said that bioinformatics and computational biology is a "high-priority area" and acknowledged that it is a "current bottleneck" for genomics research. However, while NHGRI considered including a separate division for bioinformatics as part of the restructuring, he said that the institute ultimately decided to view it as a "cross-cutting element." Furthermore, he said there was concern that creating a separate division for bioinformatics would end up siloing the discipline.

"We absolutely plan to have significant, continued investment in computational biology and bioinformatics, but it will be organized in a cross-cutting way," he said.

Additionally, he said, a working group at the National Institutes of Health is coming up with a plan for dealing with "big data." As reported by sister publication BioInform, the group is looking for comments on the challenges and issues of dealing with data, standards development, and secondary and future uses of data. The results of that group will help influence how bioinformatics is organized and funded within NHGRI, he said.

Before the restructuring plan is approved, there will be another public meeting on Feb. 13, after which Green said he would collect feedback and submit a final plan for approval.

"Our agenda is expanding, especially into the clinical arena," he said. "It makes sense that we have a more expansive structure."

Have topics you'd like to see covered by In Sequence? Contact the editor at mheger [at] genomeweb [.] com.