NIH Draft Strategic Plan for Data Science: Suggestions for Optimizing Value

Guest post by Dr. William Hersh, professor and chair of the Department of Medical Informatics and Clinical Epidemiology, School of Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University.

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a Request for Information (RFI) soliciting input for their draft Strategic Plan for Data Science. As I did for the National Library of Medicine’s (NLM) RFI concerning next-generation data science challenges in health and biomedicine, I shared my comments on the data science plan through both the formal submission mechanism and my blog. (See also my blog comments on the NLM RFI.) I appreciate being asked to update my comments on the draft NIH data science plan in this guest post.

The draft NIH data science plan is a well-motivated and well-written overview of the path NIH should follow to ensure that the value of data science is leveraged to maximize its benefit to biomedical research and human health. The goals of connecting all NIH and other relevant data, modernizing the ecosystem, developing tools and the workforce skills to use it, and making it sustainable are all important and articulated well in the draft plan.

However, collecting and analyzing the data, along with building tools and training the workforce to use the data, are not enough. Three additional aspects not adequately addressed in the draft are critical to achieving the value of data science in biomedical research.

The first of these is the establishment of a research agenda around data science itself. We still do not understand all the best practices and other nuances around the optimal use of data science in biomedical research and human health. Questions remain regarding how best to standardize data for use and re-use. What standards are needed for best use of data? Where are the gaps in our current standards that we can address to improve the use of data in biomedical research, especially data not originally collected for research purposes (such as clinical data from electronic health records and patient data from wearables, sensors, or that is directly entered)?

We must also research more extensively the human factors around data use. How do we organize workflows for optimal input, extraction, and utilization of data? What are the best human-computer interfaces for such work? How do we balance personal privacy and security against the public good of learning from such data? What ethical issues must be addressed?

The second inadequately addressed aspect concerns the workforce for data science. While the draft properly notes the critical need to train specialists in data science, it does not explicitly mention the discipline that has been at the forefront of “data science” before the term came into widespread use, namely, biomedical informatics. NLM has helped train a wide spectrum of those who work in data science, from the specialists who carry out the direct work to the applied professionals who work with researchers, the public, and other implementers. NIH should acknowledge and leverage this workforce that will analyze and apply the results of data science work. The large number of biomedical (and related flavors of) informatics programs should expand their established role in translating data science from research to practice.

The final underspecified aspect concerns the organizational home for data science within NIH. Many traditional NLM grantees, including this author, have been funded under the NIH Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) program launched several years ago. The newly released NLM Strategic Plan includes a focus on data science and goes beyond some of the limitations of the draft NIH data science plan described above, making the NLM the logical home for data science within NIH.

By addressing these concerns, the NIH data science plan can make an important contribution to realizing the potential for data science in improving human health as well as preventing and treating disease.

headshot of Dr. Hersh William Hersh, MD, FACMI, serves as professor and chair of the Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, School of Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University. His current work is focused on the workforce needed to implement health information technology, especially in clinical settings, and he is active in clinical and translational research informatics.

Power and Finesse: The NLM Board of Regents

Running an operation as large and complex as the National Library of Medicine is a big job, but I don’t do it alone. In addition to my leadership team, I am privileged to have the NLM Board of Regents to help me.

Established in 1956 by the same Act that created the Library, the Board of Regents advises me on matters ranging from the acquisition of materials for the Library to the scope, content, and organization of NLM’s services to the rules governing access to those materials and services. The Board also makes recommendations for funding research and training in bioinformatics and educational technologies, suggests demonstration projects, and proposes ways to expand or enhance the biomedical communications network of which we are a part.

In short, the Board helps guide the overall work of the Library.

Given the diverse work we do and the breadth of topics we address, the Board’s membership includes leaders from across the library and life sciences, including medicine, public health, and health communications technology. They are joined by nine ex officio members whose positions read like a Who’s Who in health and librarianship, including four Surgeons General (Public Health Service, Army, Navy, and Air Force) and two national library directors (Library of Congress and National Agricultural Library).

Being in the room with them is like driving a Ferrari—things are moving fast but with finesse. And the power under the hood? Phenomenal.

It’s a blast.

With their various areas of expertise and different perspectives, Board members raise questions, highlight issues, or suggest innovations we hadn’t previously considered. Clinicians typically advocate for improvements to information management and delivery. Researchers point us towards important unsolved challenges. Consumer representatives voice the concerns and interests of patients and caregivers. Delegates from business help us leverage cutting-edge solutions coming out of private industry. And our ex officio members, as Federal partners, connect us to other parts of the government whose problems and constraints are similar to our own.

But the value of the Board is more than the individual members’ perspectives.

It’s the synergy that builds by bringing them together three times a year. It’s the lively conversations their close collaboration sparks, as they discuss NLM’s programs, services, and research initiatives. It’s their careful, considered deliberation of our research investments. And, most recently, it’s their collective effort in crafting our strategic plan for the coming decade.

Last week, after 16 months of activities involving over 500 experts and stakeholders, the Board endorsed that plan, positioning NLM for its third century. The plan envisions NLM as a platform for data-driven discovery and data-powered health, built upon three pillars:

  1. Accelerating discovery and advancing health through data-driven research
  2. Reaching more people in more ways through enhanced dissemination and engagement
  3. Building a workforce for data-driven research and health

Now the hard work begins.

Implementing the strategic plan will require fresh perspectives, new talents, and expanded resources. We will need to build a model of trust and accountability among our 1,700 women and men, encouraging them to fully contribute their skills and ideas and to envision their work in novel ways. We will have to make tradeoffs and set priorities. And as we work to make NLM’s bright future a reality, we will need to advocate for and embrace boldness and risk-taking.

Fortunately, we have the NLM Board of Regents to guide the way.

As their work proves, multiple perspectives spur innovation and creative problem-solving; collegiality supports accountability; and respectful advocacy—whether to each other, to the NIH Director, or to the Secretary of Health and Human Services—can lead to tremendous change for the greater good.  What more could we need to accelerate the progress towards our third century?!

From One National Library to Another—Similar, Yet Different

Strategic planning underway at two national libraries

Guest post by Dianne Babski, Deputy Associate Director for Library Operations at NLM.

The United States doesn’t have a single national library like other countries. Instead, we have five—the Library of Congress (LC), the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the National Agricultural Library, the National Library of Education, and the National Transportation Library—with LC and NLM the two largest. All five libraries are in the Washington, DC area.

Last month NLM Director Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan, Dr. Mike Huerta, Associate Director for Program Development, and I took advantage of the proximity and headed to the Library of Congress for a strategic planning conversation. We were joined by LC staff from the Strategic Planning and Performance Management office, including Dianne Houghton, Director, and Emily Roberts, Management and Program Analyst.

Together we celebrated our new directors: Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, and Dr. Brennan, NLM’s 19th leader. Each the first woman appointed to her position, they were sworn in within days of each other last September—and took the helm of two national treasures on the verge of major planning initiatives.

Founded in the early 1800s, both libraries have long histories and serve unique roles. LC is a research service for the US Congress, home of the Copyright Office, a national library for the blind and physically handicapped, and sponsor of the Poet Laureate. It develops its collection based on the Jeffersonian ideal that all subjects will be of interest and value to Congress, scholars, and researchers, as well as the public. In contrast, NLM, the world’s largest biomedical library, builds upon its vast collections in biomedicine, health care, and the history of medicine to further health care practice, support life sciences research, and enhance personal and public health.

The trio poses in front of an ornate fireplace
Dianne Babski, Dr. Mike Huerta, and Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan visit the Library of Congress to discuss strategic planning.

While our collections, roles, and customers differ, the two libraries face similar challenges, including shifting budgets, dwindling space for growing collections, an evolving publishing landscape, ever-expanding digital and IT footprints, and the need to recruit, train, and retain an educated workforce. These core similarities gave us much to talk about as we discussed our respective strategic planning efforts.

LC is in the early stages of “Envisioning 2025,” its planning initiative designed to chart the course for the Library’s next decade. In-house “tiger teams” comprised of LC staff are formulating questions and raising issues that will help set priorities for future strategic planning activities. LC expects to have a full set of priorities established by the end of the fiscal year and, if all goes well, will start to implement them in 2018.

Meanwhile, NLM is quite far along in its planning process. We have solicited input from our broad stakeholder community, brought together experts to discuss challenges and opportunities around four key themes, gathered ideas and suggestions from NLM staff, and collected and synthesized public comments. This input has been sorted, analyzed, debated, and refined, and together it will inform the recommendations report set for release in late 2017. Those recommendations will, in turn, shape the priorities for NLM’s next decade.

It’s an exciting time at both libraries.

We expect to build on that excitement through ongoing collaboration, sharing experiences in risk management, digitization and preservation, and workforce development.

With more in common than different, we have much to learn from each other, and our two dynamic, new leaders are ready to guide us into a promising future.

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