Genome scientists and genetics societies expressed support for a planned reorganization of the US National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), although they raised questions on a public teleconference today about some aspects of the plan.
The plan would create seven equal divisions that report to the NHGRI director. Today, there are only two divisions reporting to the director — the divisions of intramural and extramural research. Under the new plan, these will be reorganized into a division of intramural research; two divisions carrying out managerial and policy functions; and four new divisions of extramural research in genome science, genomic medicine, genomics and society and extramural operations.
On a conference call today, NHGRI director Eric Green said that the reorganization would help the institute shift from understanding the structure and biology of genomes, where much of its attention has been focused since the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project, to translating this information into better medical care. These priorities were spelled out in a planning paper published last year in Nature.
“This structure will more effectively align with the institute’s research portfolio going forward,” Green said. “Our research is expanding, especially into more clinical areas, and with that more expanded set of research territories, it makes sense that we will have an expanded structure that will help align with that vision.”
This prompted Manolis Kellis, a computational biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, to ask whether the reorganization would undermine cross-cutting work that is trying to link basic genome science to medicine.
Kellis said that he was broadly supportive of the reorganization, but asked, “I’m wondering, if funding is going to be coming from specific divisions, if people are going to start siloing themselves, saying, ‘I’m not really about genome science, I’m about genome medicine,’ ” Kellis asked on the call.
Green said that the agency was aware of the possibility of siloing and hoped to guard against it by continuing to tie funding to projects and programmes that will cut across divisions. “It’s a legitimate concern and will get a significant amount of attention,” Green said.
Peter D’Eustacio of the New York University Medical Center asked how the reorganization would address the growing need for better computational approaches in biology.
“It’s a little bit startling not to see computation featured explicitly at a divisional level,” D’Eustacio said on the call.
Green agreed that computational biology is a “high priority” area and a “bottleneck” for many fields in science, not just genomics, and said that US National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins has asked a committee of his advisers to look into the “big data” problem and make recommendations about it by this summer. As a result, Green said that NHGRI would probably revise its organizational chart during the next year or two in some way to explicitly address computational biology.
Other commenters from the patient-advocacy group Genetic Alliance and the American Society of Human Genetics expressed support for the reorganization. Another public meeting to discuss the plan will be held on 13 February in Rockville, Maryland, at the regularly scheduled meeting of the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research. Comments can also be e-mailed to NHGRIcomments@nih.gov.
Green said that the major impetus behind the reorganization is to help support the agency’s expansion. Founded as an organizational home for the Human Genome Project 15 years ago, NHGRI today has a budget of US$500 million, supports 17 extramural projects including the Cancer Genome Atlas and the Large-Scale Sequencing Program, and coordinates seven trans-National Institutes of Health “Common Fund” initiatives, including the Human Microbiome Project.