BETHESDA, Md.—On Feb. 12, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the U.S. National Institutes of Health launched a round of strategic planning to establish a 2020 vision for genomics research aimed at accelerating scientific and medical breakthroughs. In developing the strategic plan, the institute will engage experts and diverse public communities to identify paradigm-shifting areas of genomics in an effort to expand the field into new frontiers and enable novel applications to human health and disease.
“In developing an updated vision for genomics, we aim to be a driving force for highly impactful and broadly applicable progress that empowers others in the field and helps to improve the lives of all people,” says Dr. Eric Green, NHGRI’s director, who launched the current round of strategic planning at the 82nd meeting of the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research.
In the past, NHGRI has often taken an “all things genomics” approach to strategic planning. But many applications of genomics to specific areas of biology and human disease have matured considerably, evolving into important specialized areas in their own right.
“The breadth and depth of genomics across the biomedical research landscape are rapidly expanding,” Green points out. “At this time, it is critical that NHGRI stay laser-focused on pioneering genomics endeavors, rather than casting a wide net that includes areas well-studied and heavily supported by other organizations.
“[Areas] that are well-established and/or being sufficiently funded by others will likely be de-emphasized during NHGRI’s strategic-planning process—not because they are unimportant, but rather because they are not in need of NHGRI’s unique capabilities and attention. In some cases, these will reflect areas that the institute once emphasized and funded, but for which progress now allows the Institute to cede leadership, strategic planning and funding to others. Two such examples include cancer genomics and microbiome research, because of their strong support by others in the scientific community.”
The process will culminate in the publication of the new strategic plan in October 2020 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Human Genome Project, the international effort that first mapped a complete sequence of the human genome.
When asked what he believes the impact will be on researchers who focus on the areas of research being deemphasized, Green says, “Cancer genomics, microbial genomics and microbiome research—several very important (and ‘hot’) areas of genomics—are now blossoming. At some point in the past, NHGRI was involved in helping shape and support research in each of these areas. Over time, these areas have grown and matured substantially, attracting other major funders, who now lead and support the associated research.”
“These are…areas of genomics that are critically important and should continue to expand, but will not be tackled directly as part of NHGRI’s strategic-planning process. In fact, these areas deserve their own dedicated strategic planning that engages individuals with appropriate expertise (and, in many cases, such planning is already underway),” continues Green. “At this time, we are awaiting input from the community about which areas will (and will not) be critical to pursue with NHGRI attention and funding over the coming years.”
NHGRI expects to prioritize discussions in emerging areas of genomics that are not well defined, will benefit from significant investments and are not specific to particular diseases or physiological systems. These include broadly applicable areas such as genomic technology development; using genomic information in patient care; and the ethical, legal and social implications of genomics, among others.
“The 2020 strategic planning process will identify the major areas of focus for NHGRI funding moving forward. We will concentrate on areas that we deem are at the ‘forefront of genomics’ as it pertains to human health and disease. There are a number of major areas that have yet to be well defined and lack significant investments. These newly emerging areas will get high-priority attention during the institute’s strategic-planning process,” Green tells DDNews. “Often ‘agnostic’ to particular diseases or physiological systems, these areas will be particularly appropriate for NHGRI’s stewardship and funding.”
Prototypic examples of these areas include genomic technology development; genomic variation and its functional consequences; epigenomics; interactions between the genome and the environment; general and generic aspects of (and barriers to) uses of genomic medicine in clinical care; research and clinical training in genomics; policy development and implementation to enhance data sharing; and ethical, legal and social implications of genomics, he elucidates, adding: “The strategic planning process will also invest attention into opportunities in the study of rare and common diseases, as well as computational genomics and data science.”
Initially, NHGRI plans to frame the strategic discussions in five focus areas: basic genomics and genomic technologies; genomics of disease; genomic and precision medicine; genomic data science; and society, education and engagement. NHGRI will seek input from a variety of stakeholders, including the scientific and medical communities, non-profit and private sectors, patient groups and the public.
The institute will provide multiple ways for those interested to provide input and to help shape the 2020 strategic plan, including workshops, town halls, social media conversations and satellite meetings at scientific conferences. Anyone can now submit comments on the institute’s dedicated strategic planning website on genome.gov, and follow conversations on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #genomics2020.
“All elements of the strategic planning process will feed into the final NHGRI’s 2020 strategic plan for genomics. At this time, there is no formula for weighting any of these elements [input and feedback from social media, workshops, etc.] higher than others,” concludes Green. “We do encourage members of the scientific and lay communities to join us at one of our town halls, as those are good opportunities for cross-discussion amongst the communities involved in genomics.”