To wrap up 2017, FedHealthIT recognized 100 individuals who were nominated by their peers for driving change and advancement in the Federal Health Information Technology market. Some of the common themes among those who were selected included the desire and willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, to go above and beyond, to drive innovation, and to give back to the larger Federal Health IT and Consulting community.
Over the course of 2018, we’ll speak with many of these industry leaders and will share with you their insights on how the industry may continue to move forward and advice about getting involved.
Andrea Norris is Director of the Center for Information Technology (CIT) and Chief Information Officer of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the world’s largest funder of biomedical research and uses its $34 billion budget to advance its mission to “seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability” through 27 distinct institutes and centers. The bulk of NIH’s funding, more than 80 percent, is awarded through competitive grants to more than 300,000 researchers at more than 2,500 academic research centers throughout the United States and around the world.
Here, Andrea shares with us some insights on changes and direction within NIH, on partnering with the Agency, and future opportunities.
Tell us About Some of the Changes Within NIH
I joined the Agency six years ago when NIH was beginning to address the opportunities and challenges of big data and biomedical research. The combination of the sheer volume of data being generated and declining technology costs allowed us to consider doing things we hadn’t imagined before. There was real recognition by NIH leadership that we needed to prepare to handle these large amounts of data. As a first step, they established a working group of worldwide experts under the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) to make recommendations.
At the same time, we looked at our own campus infrastructure and initiated a review of infrastructure modernization initiatives to better posture NIH for data-intensive research. It’s been a multi-year process, but we updated our distributed computer network to span more than 130 labs and facilities, and we’re now moving petabytes of data every day in support of the research and business operations of NIH. We’ve also developed a state-of-the-art super-computer facility ranked at number 66 in the world by Top500. It is the first facility dedicated to biomedical research to be listed among the top 100 most powerful computers in the world.
We understand that the rich datasets generated at NIH are becoming more important across our institutes and centers, as well as the larger research communities we serve, so we’re also looking at how data is stored and managed so that it is accessible and interoperable across all of the places it is housed. We’ve prioritized data science—investing significantly into related research to help ensure the data is accessible, sustainable, and can be reused appropriately.
Other areas we’re exploring include incorporating cloud services into our business models; partnerships with other agencies, commercial industry, and non-profits; and leveraging technology to support new ways of treating illness and conducting research. We’re also beginning to look at the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning and potential opportunities that exist in those areas.
So, it’s an exciting time! There’s a lot of opportunity and potential on the horizon.
Tell us More About the Partnerships
We’re seeing more partnerships among global industry, academia, and non-profits these days. In line with that, we’re in the process of establishing an NIH data commons through which we’ll grant multiple awards to industry and academia to help us look at what we can do to establish a vendor-agnostic cloud environment comprised of large, high-value data sets that will allow researchers from anywhere to access the environment, to bring their computational tools, collaborate with other researchers, and potentially leave their tools for others to build on.
Part of this is exploring ways to efficiently leverage commercial cloud resources to find ways of making our own large, complex data resources, which are in demand, available to the research community.
A lot of the work we’ve done and continue to do, like modernizing our computer network infrastructure, looking at ways to store and move data, determining compute access, and reducing our on-the-ground need for file storage by using such platforms as SharePoint and OneDrive, help position us well to share information and work with partners.
We’ve also implemented new collaboration platforms and tools that have allowed us to grow from a few hundred video events to more than 20,000 WebEx and Skype video meetings per month, including project meetings, training, and teleworking. This has changed the way we work and collaborate internally and with remote colleagues and partners.
As we look at potential partnerships and information sharing, there are a number of challenges related to policy, business practice, and approaches that need to be considered, but NIH is committed to learning and adapting as we move forward.
How does NIH Work Collaboratively?
We recognize the criticality of the mission first, and we use technology in the most creative and innovative ways to achieve it. For example, our missions within HHS are quite different, but we are bonded together and quick to reach out to each other for best practices and sharing. Over the past few years, that has gotten stronger.
What Future Opportunities are on the Horizon?
We’re always looking for efficiencies, for more consistent added value in how things are done, and for people who can help us think strategically. What NIH is best at is biomedical research. We don’t want—or need—to invent everything. Partners who can help us get from A to B are important, but they have to understand we are in a federated environment, and we have to choose opportunities carefully, making sure they add value, contribute to the mission, and can be successfully adopted—not just deployed.
My approach as CIO is always to look for win-wins, for successes that can work, not necessarily for everyone but for most. We’ve been fairly successful in most of the things we’ve moved to enterprise grade, and we’ll keep following that model.
What is One of the Challenges?
Recruiting and retaining top talent in IT is a challenge. We do a great job in the biomedical space, but in the IT space it’s harder to attract and retain good people. In the data science space, for example, we recognize that we don’t have enough people with those specific skill sets. We’re hoping to establish a new fellowship program for data scientists. We know we won’t be able to pay Silicon Valley salaries, but we hope that the chance to work on the Cancer Moonshot, to be able to make real headway in Alzheimer’s research, and other initiatives, will make working at NIH compelling for some. We know most won’t stay forever, but we hope some will.
We are doubly challenged when you consider that Washington, DC (NIH is located outside of Washington in Bethesda, MD) is such a technology-rich area. The competition for talent on both the industry and Government side is incredible. The bottom line though is that technology will come and go. The work, the passion, has to start and end with the mission, and then the technology can be shaped to follow.
What Keeps You up at Night?
Cybersecurity is a challenge for everyone. Balancing the risks and controls given our open environment for science and discovery, and homing in on the highest risk and highest exposure, is a concern. We spend a lot of time assessing, monitoring, reassessing, and doing it all over again. The sweet spot—where we need to balance—changes all the time.
I also worry about how to position our organization to be best prepared to help NIH move forward. There is a lot of really innovative technology but at the end of the day, it is about charting the right direction, ensuring we are on the right path, that we can be predictable, but that we are also flexible and nimble enough to adjust as we need to.
Andrea Norris is the Director of the Center for Information Technology (CIT) and the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of NIH. As the NIH CIO, she provides oversight of NIH’s $1 billion IT portfolio that supports scientific research and discovery. As the CIT Director, she is responsible for managing a broad range of NIH-wide information and information technology services, including a new state-of-the-market high-speed research network infrastructure, a high-performance scientific computing system recently ranked #66 in the world by TOP500, cloud-based collaboration and communication platforms and tools, bioinformatics research programs, data center services, business solutions and applications, and 24/7 operations of NIH’s distributed IT environment. Prior to her tenure at NIH, she spent more than 10 years as the Acting Chief Information Officer and in other roles at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where she provided strategic direction and leadership for the technology investments needed to support the Foundation’s mission. One of Ms. Norris’ most notable other previous roles was as the Deputy Chief Information Officer for Management for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where she provided senior leadership and management of the Agency’s complex $2 billion information technology portfolio. Prior to joining the Federal Government, Ms. Norris was a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton and served on the President’s Private Sector Commission on Cost Control.