Front Page

Previous Story

Next Story

NIH Record

Genome Director Explains Institute's Mission

By Robert Bock

On the Front Page...

"You cannot micromanage an institute of 400 people," said NHGRI director Dr. Francis Collins. "You need to find the right people for the right jobs, and turn them loose."


Collins passed on this management advice during a recent brown bag lunch seminar for members of NIH's Management Cadre Program. The program is designed to train highly motivated employees to help meet future leadership needs at NIH. Its monthly brown bag seminars feature senior NIH staffers, who describe their management roles and functions. (Additional information about the Management Cadre Program is available at

"If you don't hire the right people," Collins continued, "you'll have to watch them all the time. They'll know that something's wrong, and will always be on edge."

Dr. Francis Collins

Before becoming head of NHGRI in 1993, Collins led efforts to identify the genes for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis and Huntington disease. During the brown bag seminar, he explained that NHGRI differs significantly from other NIH institutes. Rather than promoting scientific inquiry for a particular disease entity as most institutes do, NHGRI has a series of set goals. The institute is responsible for directing the Human Genome Project, an ambitious effort to find the location of the 100,000 or so human genes and to read the entire human DNA "script" — all 3 billion nucleotide bases that make up the human genome — by the year 2005. Collins added that he expects that this goal, as most others for the genome project, will be met ahead of schedule.

To help achieve these goals, NHGRI operates under a series of 5-year plans. "Our model wouldn't work for other institutes," Collins said. "It's at odds with the system of investigator-initiated ideas that drive the majority of other institutes' operations."

The first such plan was implemented in 1990. Already outdated in 1993, it was supplanted by a new plan. Its goals, too, were accomplished ahead of schedule, Collins said, and yet another plan was put into effect in 1998.

Collins said much of his duties involve coordinating efforts of the various groups attempting to sequence the genome — the Department of Energy, more than a dozen U.S.-funded research centers, and several research centers in foreign countries. For the most part, this involves getting the various research teams taking part to put aside the scientific tradition of competition, and work toward a common objective.

"The genome is a bounded set of information," he said. "You wouldn't want the various centers to work without coordinating with each other."

To ensure continued cooperation, Collins said he spends about half his time talking with researchers at the various centers. On Fridays, staff members from the centers discuss the previous week's activities during a group conference call. Every 2 months, all project staff get together for a full-day meeting.

Collins added that it has been crucial to obtain expert advice from the scientific community in planning the genome project's goals and timelines. It has also been helpful to obtain advice from other institutes on organization and management, as was done in 1997 when a thorough review of NHGRI's management structure was carried out, simultaneously with the elevation of the center to institute status.

According to Collins, NHGRI is well on its way to accomplishing its goal of sequencing the genome. More than 50 percent of the genome has been sequenced, and 90 percent will be sequenced by mid-May.

"Being ahead of schedule is due in large part to the technology," he said. "It's also helped to parcel out the sequencing tasks appropriately to the various centers involved."

Advances in robotics, he explained, make it possible to sequence genes with lightning rapidity. For the most part, the sequencing facilities contain large numbers of high-speed sequencing machines attended by relatively few human beings.

Collins said he sees NHGRI's role as supportive of the other institutes, providing both the locations and sequence of all the human genes, as well as sequences of model organisms like yeast and the roundworm, and developing the technology to use all of this information efficiently. With this trove, the other institutes can gain insight into the various hereditary disorders that fall within the purview of their individual missions.

"We see ourselves as providing the genomic power tools for all the other institutes to go out and do what they need to," he said.

In recent years, NHGRI's mission has gained a new urgency. Private groups are also sequencing the genome, but with an objective different than NHGRI's. These groups are patenting the genes they sequence, in hopes of granting access to the genes for a fee. One company, Celera, has filed an estimated 20,000 patents in the last 6 months.

"I'm deeply worried about this trend," Collins noted. "We've taken a strong position that the basic sequence of the human genome belongs to the public and should be made available immediately."

For this reason, NHGRI researchers must often bypass the conventional scientific practice of publishing their work in peer-reviewed journals in favor of immediately posting their findings on the web.

"Our data goes up on the web every 24 hours," Collins said. "We need to get as much information as possible into the public domain, as quickly as possible."

Compared to most institutes' intramural programs, NHGRI's program is a newcomer — only about 6 years old. The framework for it was put in place in 1993, when various experts were convened to plan the overall structure and organization of the institute. To staff the new program, research scientists were recruited from within NIH and from academia.

"At first, we feared that we wouldn't get good people, because of lower salaries and doubts about working in a bureaucracy," he said. To Collins' surprise, however, some of the best researchers in the world came to work for the program, to pursue the scientific freedoms of a research environment. "Our intramural program has arguably become the premiere institution in human genetics in the country," he said.

What's next for NHGRI, after sequencing the genome is complete?

"We still have lots to do," Collins said. "We will need to sequence other large genomes as well, especially that of the laboratory mouse. The comparison of the human and mouse sequences will speak volumes about the function of the various human genes."

Similarly, NHGRI will continue to develop new technologies to understand how human gene sequences work. Another step will be to encourage new centers of excellence in genomic science, to study variation in the sequences of genes and the role those variations play in disease. As it has in its sequencing efforts, NHGRI will again rely on automation, this time to develop new methods of understanding how genes function on a large scale.

"Completing the sequence of the human genome is the end of the beginning," he said. "Now the real excitement begins!"

(The author is a member of the NIH Management Cadre class of 2000 and press officer for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. This story grew out of an assignment to study successful management.)

Up to Top