Dismantling the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy

The Duke Institute of Genome Sciences & Policy will be gone July 1— and the transition is somewhat bittersweet.

IGSP Director Huntington Willard announced on the IGSP website March 24 that it will be shifting from a formal institute to a broader three-unit structure, effective July 1. The change parallels the evolution of genomics as a field and will have a narrower scope than the institute has had in the past 11 years.

“This has been one of my babies that I developed from scratch,” Willard said. “There’s a lot of ownership there, both intellectual and emotional. Having said that, when you look around and you see what’s here now that wasn’t here 11.5 years ago, there’s a lot to be proud of, so it’ll be fun to see what happens over the next five years.”

When the IGSP was established in 2003, the University believed that genomics would have substantial research and policy implications, said Provost Peter Lange. As a result, the institute’s main goal was to bring genomics to the forefront of campus dialogue, something Lange said he believes it has accomplished.

“In 2003, I was literally one of two people on campus who knew what genomics was,” Willard said. “So that was the blank piece of paper that attracted me was that ability to come up with that vision and see how one would do that. In some sense, mission accomplished. Now genomics is everywhere.”

A timeline for change

In February 2013, Duke conducted an external review of the institute as part of a regular five-year-review cycle mandated for all institutes. The resulting April 2013 report was “quite laudatory,” Willard said.

The review stated that Duke should preserve key functions of the IGSP that are critical to all research universities, such as cross-disciplinary, genome-relevant research.

“This key function is provided exclusively by IGSP, and not by any other current genome program at Duke, and will be required for the foreseeable future as technologies and opportunities continue to emerge,” the review stated.

After IGSP completed the review process, several administrators came together to deliberate on the future of the institute. Lange and Willard were part of the decision-making process, as well as incoming provost and vice dean for basic science Sally Kornbluth, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies Susan Roth and Dr. Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Although the review was conducted in February, the fate of the IGSP was not discussed with IGSP faculty until September 2013. As a result, rumors proliferated about the future of the institute, Willard said.

Initial uncertainty

“There were times when it was not clear whether the IGSP would actually cease to exist, that it might have been downsized to a smaller institute, that they had a more focused and austere role,” said Dr. Geoffrey Ginsburg, director of genomic medicine for the IGSP. “There was a lot of water-cooler talk and that kind of thing that was counterproductive because it’s all speculative.”

Lange said the University knew what direction it needed to go regarding the IGSP but did not want to broadcast multiple messages. Instead, Duke waited until the leadership, structure and budget were decided.

“I do regret that there was that level of uncertainty, I know it made people a little unhappy,” Lange said. “But everybody involved in this has navigated the uncertainty really well and stepped up to the solution with a lot of enthusiasm. I think we’re going to be able to go forward with a strong set of programs.”

Since the March 24 announcement on the change, Willard and the new directors have been working to ensure that all academic, administrative and research activities seamlessly transition to the new model, Kornbluth said.

The University decided in September that the institute will transform into three new units: Applied Genomics & Precision Medicine, Computational Biology & Integrative Genomics and Duke Science & Society.

“Because we got the review we did, we concluded this was the best way to advance the broader mission that we have,” Lange said.

Andrews deferred official comment to Kornbluth.

“Having smaller units means they’ll be able to respond more nimbly to rapid changes in their different areas of focus,” Kornbluth said. “None of the areas developed in the IGSP will be neglected.”

Although the new units will no longer share a director or a budget, they will continue to share students and core technology facilities. Lange noted their new cumulative budgets would probably be a bit larger but said he could not comment on their individual budgets.

“Is any single person likely to be the best at coming up with a strategy for science and society and the best to come up with a strategy for computational biology?” Willard said. “It’s almost impossible, they’re so different. It’s more important to get the content experts who have national reputations in each area.”

Duke Science & Society began within the institute July 2013, and was designed to integrate science with the broader community, said Nita Farahany, director of Science & Society and professor of law and philosophy.

Increasing the program’s emphasis on bioethics will attract new types of students, Willard noted. Approximately 95 percent of current certificate students are science majors.

The Applied Genomics & Precision Medicine unit will study how genome research can be applied to medicine. It will work closely with patients and providers to improve the efficiency of genome-related health care delivery, said Ginsburg, who will be director of Applied Genomics & Precision Medicine.

While most researchers in the other units use genomics as a tool, those in Computational Biology & Integrative Genomics focus on refining genomic tools and techniques. As the hub for basic-science research, it is also home to the core technology facilities, currently overseen by Greg Wray, director of Computational Biology & Integrative Genomics and biology professor.

“We want to bring together the people who are the innovators in genomics on campus,” Wray said. “The people in the unit I’m leading are kind of defined by the fact that they want to push the envelope on genomic methods, and that can be computational, statistical, building a device or techniques.”

In addition to its research, the IGSP maintained several educational programs, including the freshman FOCUS program and the undergraduate Genome Sciences & Policy certificate program. Willard said between eight and 20 students graduate with the certificate each year. The IGSP’s transformation will not end either program, but will instead modify them to span all three units.

Beyond the undergraduate programs, the University will preserve doctoral program in computational biology and bioinformatics and graduate studies in the Duke University Program in Genetics and Genomics, Lange noted. Duke is also adding a masters degree in bioethics and science policy.

“The education programs are the great integrator,” Willard said. “Before we had this institute umbrella and a whole bunch of things underneath it. Now we have these three units, but the foundation of them is education.”

Implications for other institutes

Including the IGSP, there are currently seven institutes on campus—all begun under Lange’s provostship. Although Kornbluth said there are no immediate implications for other institutes, the University will continue to conduct regular reviews of each one.

“We’ve always told them no institute is permanent,” Lange said. “Certainly this tells them the review process is real, it’s serious. It can have consequences. Those consequences don’t need to be that we restructure, they might just be to learn from these things and to go on the next five years like we’ve been going.”

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke Global Health Institute, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and The Kenan Institute for Ethics have all recently or are currently going through reviews, Lange said.

“Overall, it’s harder to dismantle an institute than it is to put together,” Lange said. “That’s a bottom-line lesson we learned.”


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