Guest Post By: Mary Woolley, President and CEO, Research!America
Each year, Congress develops a federal budget, which establishes funding for each federal department and agency for the following fiscal year. This determines how much funding agencies like the NIH have to support scientific research through grants, as well as in their own labs.
Budget Caps Threaten Research Funding
A federal law, the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), placed stifling caps on spending that have threatened funding for the NIH and other agencies. These caps are blunt tools that batter crucial national priorities, compromising security, prosperity, and progress.
Why It’s Time to #RaisetheCaps
Because the caps established by the BCA are so low, Congress has raised them repeatedly to allow sufficient funding for federal agencies. Unfortunately, those “caps deals” were temporary. Unless Congress acts again, we’re looking at a cut of approximately $55 billion to non-defense discretionary spending in the next fiscal year, which guarantees trouble. If the cuts are distributed evenly or no budget deal is reached, then NIH and every other public health and science agency faces a cut of about 10%. In the case of NIH, that would mean a cut of as much as $4 billion.
Achieving another agreement to raise the budget caps is crucial, time-sensitive, and not by any means a sure thing.
You don’t need a laundry list of the negative consequences on science that these cuts would engender. Suffice it to say that promising research will be choked off, fewer new grants will be funded, and medical and other scientific progress will slow dramatically. All this during a time of unprecedented scientific opportunity, when other nations are already nipping at our heels and would surely attract more and more young scientists if the U.S. signaled lack of support. Starving research is not the solution to what ails us — literally or economically.
Your voices, your story, and your expertise are needed now. Tell your friends, colleagues, and Congressional representatives why medical progress, public health progress, and science itself are crucial, and why federal funding for these priorities is so important.
My first few months as a Genetics Education & Engagement Fellow, which have included rotations at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) and ASHG, have been full of lessons, new experiences, and opportunities to increase my skill set.
At NHGRI, I’ve learned more about government agencies and how they work. I’ve begun to develop partnerships across the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the surrounding community, and have seen that the NIH is a collaborative environment, and how small the genetics community is in the DC area. At ASHG, I have discovered some of the roles of scientific societies and the importance of member relationships. I have seen the behind-the-scenes work required to build a community and plan valuable events. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and even spearhead events helping to increase genetic understanding and health literacy in different communities.
My major project while at NHGRI was the NBC4 Health and Fitness Expo. This project required immense collaboration and preparation. Though weekend snow covered the streets of the district, we were still able to educate and engage over 200 community members and talk to them about genetic risk assessment, direct-to-consumer genetics, basic genetics and genomics, and some of the things that happen at NHGRI. Seeing the public converse about how genetic health history impacts their lives was a highlight for me. It’s so important to show those who may not have a vested interest in science how it impacts them and affects their day-to-day lives.
This was not my only project that focused on facilitating and increasing genetics education and engagement. Shortly after starting my rotation at ASHG, I was able to help find and develop tools for ASHG members that aid them in answering questions about genetics and genomics from nonscientific communities. ASHG is a trusted source for up-to-date genetics information and my hope is that members of ASHG can locate resources that help them answer and respond to public inquiries.
I have also had the opportunity to speak with budding scientists through an event organized by the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program. I served as a panelist and talked to gifted high school students about my career and educational experiences in the field. This event allowed me to speak on the importance of genetics, genomics, and health literacy, and to bring awareness to the importance of understanding these topics. It was great to see so many young people excited about science and the influx of different career options available to budding scientists. I’ve also had the opportunity to help increase diversity at NHGRI by helping to find and recruit committee members from diverse populations who have a vested interest in genetics and genomics.
The fellowship is just getting started. I know that there will be even more opportunities to learn, serve, and develop as a scientist and educator.
Posted By: Eve Granatosky, PhD, ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellow
Around this time last year, I was putting the finishing touches on my dissertation and trying to coordinate a date for my thesis defense. This week, I helped prepare a United States Senator for an event on drug pricing and met with constituent groups on issues ranging from cancer research to school nutrition. This dramatic and exciting shift was only possible because of the ASHG/NHGRI Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship.
Throughout most of my time in graduate school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in science policy, and was looking for an opportunity that would allow me to apply my scientific expertise in rare diseases and preclinical drug discovery in a policy setting. The Genetics & Public Policy Fellowship was a great fit with my background and interest in exploring multiple spaces within the policy world. So far, I’ve had the chance to work in both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, and later this year I’ll complete my fellowship with the Policy and Advocacy team at ASHG. I’m currently about six months into my fellowship, and am happy to report that the experience so far has been just as excellent as I had hoped.
Budgetary and Strategic Planning at NHGRI
I started my fellowship in September within the Policy and Program Analysis Branch (PPAB) at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). Right away, I got to jump into several projects the branch was working on, including drafting the Institute’s Fiscal Year 2020 Congressional Budget Justification, an important step in NHGRI’s being funded each year. This was a great way to learn about many of the research projects funded by NHGRI and write about them in a way that was concise, engaging, and accessible. I also helped organize feedback from the wider genomics community that was collected as part of NHGRI’s ongoing strategic planning process.
A highlight of this rotation was presenting a poster at the annual NHGRI Symposium. My PPAB colleagues and I described some recent studies on public perceptions of the use of genetic data by law enforcement (particularly for solving cold cases) and discussed potential policy options to address genetic privacy. After surveying symposium participants on their own views on this topic, we learned that while the NHGRI community was mostly supportive of the use of genetic data for law enforcement for solving crimes, they overall reported having more concerns about their genetic privacy than do members of the general public who have been surveyed.
A Wide Range of Health and Education Topics on the Hill
This January, I started my second fellowship rotation, in the office of Senator Richard Blumenthal from my home state of Connecticut. I work with two other staffers on the health and education portfolios, including issues related to biomedical research. Within the health space, I’ve worked on a wide range of issues, including antibiotic stewardship, e-cigarettes, prescription drugs, and dietary supplements. In education, I’m working on issues related to social and emotional learning and oversight of predatory colleges and universities.
So far, I’ve been involved in both long-term projects in these areas as well as the day-to-day business of the office. I really enjoy getting to meet with Connecticut constituents to discuss their priorities and concerns – I feel like I learn something new every meeting and it’s fascinating to get to hear about so many different topics.
Another major part of my job as a fellow is drafting bills, letters, memos, and briefings for the Senator to help him prepare for events. Putting together memos and briefings is probably where my research and analysis skills from graduate school are most valuable. These documents need to succinctly synthesize what a particular event is about, what stakeholders are involved and what their perspectives are, what past legislative or oversight work the Senator has done in that issue area, and what message he should try to get across in his remarks. Overall, I really like the pace of my office and the scope of issues I work on, and I’m looking forward to what the next few months will bring!
Applying My Scientific Training in a Policy Environment
As I look back on the past six months, I realize how valuable this fellowship has been for my career and professional development. I’ve solidified my interest in pursuing a path in science policy, and thought more specifically about what kind of professional positions I might like to pursue in the future. I’m constantly refining my communication skills, particularly in writing for different audiences and purposes. I’m improving my project and time management skills, and learning to how to prioritize short- and long-term goals. Maybe most importantly, I really like what I’m doing! This fellowship has shown me first hand that I can apply my scientific training outside of a research environment in a way that’s both personally and professionally fulfilling.
I would definitely recommend this fellowship to any early career genetics professionals who are interested in careers in policy. Beyond getting to do the kind of awesome work I talked about here, you’ll benefit from mentorship and support from the whole community of fellowship alumni. Thank you to ASHG and NHGRI for making this experience possible, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of my fellowship brings!
Last month, the U.S. Congress approved legislation establishing a $2 billion (or 5.1%) funding increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. NIH’s total funding for FY 2019 is $39.1 billion. This includes increased funding for several priority research initiatives, such as the Cancer Moonshot and the All of Us research Initiative.
Increase Will Support New Priorities in Genetics and Genomics
The legislation (H.R. 6157) was signed into law by President Trump on September 28, after passing both the Senate (93-7) and the House (361-61). The $2 billion boost is the fourth consecutive increase in the NIH budget in recent years, demonstrating strong bipartisan support for biomedical research in Congress. Significantly, it is the first time in over 20 years that Congress has finalized the NIH budget on time.
In addition to Congress being able to allocate funding for specific research initiatives, the annual appropriations bill also gives Congress an opportunity to issue directives to federal agencies, such as establishing how an agency should proceed on a particular activity or commissioning a report about a particular topic. One such directive you may be familiar with is the so-called “Dickey-Wicker Amendment,” which forbids the use of federal research dollars on any research that harms human embryos. In the FY 2019 appropriations, there are three directives related to genetics and genomics:
A Government Accountability Office report was commissioned to analyze the medical genetics workforce nationwide. The report is asked to determine whether there are a sufficient number of qualified professionals to serve this growing health need and whether there are any geographic areas that lack access to genetic counseling professionals.
An amendment from Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) requires the HHS Secretary to submit a report on the circumstances in which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services may be providing payments to, or otherwise funding, entities that process genome or exome data in the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Federation.
Funding Bill’s Timely Passage Will Help with Long-Term Planning
The fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30 of the following year, and each year, Congress is required to establish funding for upcoming fiscal year. For the past 21 years, Congress has missed the deadline, and in order to avoid a government shutdown, had to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) that agreed to continue to fund the government until a new spending bill was completed. Indeed, such a scenario caused brief shutdowns last winter.
This year, the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes NIH, was funded through all of FY 2019, so there is no possibility of a shutdown for NIH. The budget’s timely passage means that institutes and centers can plan for the year ahead knowing what funds are available. However, other agencies, including the National Science Foundation, are currently funded by a CR until December 7, 2018, and funding for these agencies in FY 2019 remains uncertain.
As you may recall, last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) was asked by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to evaluate the many issues and perspectives surrounding ‘the return of individual-specific research results generated in research laboratories’.
In keeping with the trend towards greater participant inclusion, the recently launched All of Us program promises to share individual-level data with participants. By signaling greater involvement in the research process and dubbing All of Us participants as ‘partners’, NIH hopes to make participation more valuable and equitable.
Given this context, the NASEM committee was charged with evaluating the ethical, social, regulatory, and operational issues associated with returning results to participants. With many members involved in such research, ASHG submitted comments to the committee that focused on the complexity of returning individual-specific results of genomics research, outlining areas of consensus and contention within the genomics community.
The NASEM committee’s report, released last month, aligns with ASHG’s comments in some ways as well as revealing meaningful differences of perspective. For example, ASHG recommended that research funding include financial support for returning results to participants to make the task more viable. However, the NASEM report calls for research institutions and funding agencies to “develop and provide access to the resources and infrastructure needed to ensure that investigators conducting testing…can meet the necessary standards for quality”. Overall, NASEM’s report emphasizes addressing the quality of results over the burden to researchers in operationalizing their return.
The committee recommends placing greater responsibility on researchers returning individual-specific research results. It also proposes several guiding principles for researchers: chiefly, that the return of results be considered from the inception of the study, through its design and development, and that laboratories that plan to return results adopt high-quality standards.
However, the committee acknowledges that the diversity in size, funding, and scale of research laboratories makes CLIA certification, the clinically required regulation for laboratories issuing any test results to individuals, at times inappropriate or unnecessary for returning results not intended to inform clinical care. To address the financial, logistical, and operational hurdles of returning high-quality laboratory analyses with confidence, the committee suggests the creation of an accepted quality management system for research laboratories as an alternative to CLIA certification.
Currently, people joining the program will have the choice to answer questions about their demographics, overall health, and lifestyle behaviors. Participants will also be asked, but not required, to authorize access to their electronic health record data, which is a significant source of clinical information about a person’s health history. We have established an expanding network of clinic sites around the country where some participants will be invited to give physical measurements and biospecimens for future assays and research. The program plans to begin genotyping and sequencing participant DNA next year.
All this data will be stripped of obvious identifiers and made available to researchers, who could range from students and citizen scientists to established investigators. They’ll have to apply to access the information and abide by a data use agreement. Also, participants will be able to access their own data and see how researchers are using it. All of Us is building the data resource now and expects it to be open for research in 2019. The resource should grow quickly as data from electronic health records, genetic analyses, wearables, and other sources are added.
The All of Us Research Program recognizes that the information participants are providing is personal and sensitive, and security and privacy are of the highest importance to the program. The program is working hard to establish and maintain a secure infrastructure that supports a participant-focused recruitment and enrollment process. For example, the program has implemented security features that meet rigorous federal standards for protecting and securing data.
So what is my role in all of this? As someone who has spent several years exploring human genetic variation as it relates to disease and drug response, I would love to be on the receiving end of all this data! I play an equally exciting part in All of Us as the program director of The Participant Center, which manages overall operations for All of Us’s “direct volunteer” enrollment across the country. The Participant Center has established a phenomenal set of national partners, such as Walgreens, Blue Cross Blue Shield, WebMd, and Fitbit. These partners are helping expand our national reach for clinic sites, developing national and local marketing and outreach strategies, and exploring data collection through various digital health technologies.
While my research interests align with All of Us’s scientific vision, I always find myself most attracted to this program for personal reasons. I lost my father to pulmonary fibrosis, helped my mother control her diabetes, and have stayed up many nights trying to alleviate my son’s asthma. Perhaps it’s safe to say that many of us, maybe even all of us, have similar stories. I’m honored to be a part of something that could potentially bring us one step closer to better understanding health and disease at an individual level.
Posted By: Emily C. Glassberg, PhD Candidate, ASHG Communications Committee
A few weeks ago, I attended the 31st annual Biology of Genomes (BoG) meeting at Cold Spring Harbor. In addition to highlighting the amazing research that comprises the current state of genomics, this meeting highlighted the storied past and bright future of the field. The enthusiastic participation of attendees, both at the meeting and on Twitter, shows incredible energy and momentum as we try to understand the genome’s role in biology, evolution, and disease.
The seven scientific sessions covered functional genomics, medical genomics, computational genomics, and evolutionary genomics, as well as genome engineering. Seeing this varied body of work at a single meeting clearly demonstrates that theory, experiment, high-throughput screening, and countless forms of new technology and data analysis all play central roles in shaping our current understanding of the human genome.
And, while the human genome was the primary subject of study, non-human genomes got coverage as well. Highlighted research included the genomes of near relatives, like Neanderthals; to those of best friends, like dogs; to those of model organisms, like yeast. Crowd favorites included Jaemin Kim’s and Elaine Ostrander’s talks using dogs as a system to learn about the genetic basis of complex traits (for the science as well as the adorable pictures).
The scientific programming also included two keynote speakers, Wendy Bickmore and David Page. Bickmore discussed her group’s work on how 3D chromatin structure relates to the mechanism by which enhancers – particularly long-range enhancers – interact with promoters to regulate gene expression.
Bickmore’s emphasis on the need to assay enhancer function in vivo was echoed elsewhere at the meeting. In particular, Emma Farley spoke about high-throughput measurements of enhancer function in the model chordate Ciona. In combination, these talks sparked a conversation about whether current computational models are looking in the wrong places when it comes to predicting enhancer activity and specificity.
Page presented his group’s work on the evolution of sex chromosomes with an eye to understanding sex differences in health and disease. Page’s question of whether and how males and females “read their genomes differently” connected to broader questions that recurred throughout this year’s meeting – how do we understand the genome dynamically? When and how does the same genome lead to different outcomes?
The ways in which the genome and its downstream effects change over time and space is a big open question, and this year’s BoG showcased many approaches to tackling it:
Ben Strober and Jonathan Griffiths both used time-course gene expression data to track how gene regulation changes throughout cellular differentiation and development.
Jake Yeung shared an example of dynamic chromatin interactions and rhythmic promoter-enhancer contacts that are connected to circadian rhythm.
Christina Leslie presented work on how the chromatin state of tumor specific T-cells changes during cancer progression and how that influences disease treatability.
And that’s just a sample of the exciting work in this space! While we don’t yet have clear answers to these questions, the research discussed at BoG reveals a landscape that is complex, nuanced, and fascinating. What a great time to be in genomics!
In addition to discussions spanning the range of the current field of genomics, BoG included a brief talk in memoriam of molecular and developmental geneticist John Sulston, who passed away on March 6, 2018. Dr. Sulston was well known for his seminal work in the now-model organism C. elegans, as well as his role in the Human Genome Project. Eric Lander also toasted Jim Watson for his role in the Human Genome Project, and to celebrate his 90th birthday. Lander and other BoG organizers later apologized for the toast, as it was seen by many in the community as minimizing Watson’s history of racist and sexist commentary.
And, finally, no meeting would be complete without a vision for the future of the field.
A panel on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of genomics research included four perspectives on the promises and pitfalls of germline genome editing. While there is considerable excitement around using CRISPR to cure genetic disease, many issues remain regarding proof of safety as well as ensuring equal access to the technology. Following a lively discussion during the question-and-answer, the consensus seemed to be that germline genome editing is a distant future. In the meantime, we can focus on the application of currently available options, like genetic screening and assisted reproductive technologies.
The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) also engaged researchers in its current strategic planning initiative, which began in February 2018 and will be completed in 2020. NHGRI is collecting input on priority areas to help the institute live up to its mantra, TheForefront of Genomics.
Of course, the scientific discourse at Biology of Genomes isn’t limited to the talks. The three lively poster sessions were great opportunities to exchange ideas. And many spirited discussions took place during the coffee breaks, over the traditional Cold Spring Harbor banquet, and down at Blackford bar. All told, there’s a lot to look forward in genomics!
Emily C. Glassberg is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. She serves on ASHG’s Communications Committee and has been an ASHG member since 2014.