NIH chief information officer that guided agency through pandemic inducted as NAPA fellow

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As chief information officer of the National Institutes of Health, Andrea Norris oversees a far flung operation. Its many components have their own ways of doing things. But her leadership has helped the agency get through the extraordinary challenge imposed by the pandemic. Now she’s been inducted as a fellow into the National Academy of Public Administration.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Andrea, good to have you back.

Andrea Norris: Nice to see you again this morning, Tom.

Tom Temin: So you are now in NAPA. But first I want to talk about the NIH. Review for us the technological changes you’ve seen there over the years, because it’s really in some ways one of the original data driven agencies.

Andrea Norris: Yeah, it really is. I’ve been there, coming up this is my 10th year at NIH. And it has been extraordinary the changes that I’ve been able to be part of and watch big data over this last decade. We watched with the declining cost of technology and the ability when — with the human genome, and imaging data and environmental data, other kinds of data — the growth in that has just skyrocketed. And so our initiatives and what we refer to as data science, and our ability to generate these vast amounts of data has literally just changed the game in many ways and how we do science. And so you see these big data intensive research programs: BRAIN Initiative, All of Us, Precision Medicine Initiative, enrolling a million participants; TOPMed and Biocatalyst. We have the largest genomic set of data resources in the world, our sequence read archive, and so how to make best use of these data resources, to be able to find them, make them accessible, make them interoperable, be able to sustain those. That’s been a really a fascinating journey. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve been able to invest, we got ahead of a lot of this from the technology perspective, we modernized the network, a distributed hundred gigabit network. We’re moving six petabytes, a day of data through that network, massive amounts of data all around the world. And on our campus, we built a world class supercomputer, the largest singularly focused on biomedical research. We built a wonderful environment for virtual collaboration and meetings, which has paid off for us tremendously during COVID. And we’ve got some really exciting initiatives, cloud based initiatives will transition to the national research environment ecosystem, to move into the cloud to do their research into the cloud, especially with these big data repositories.

Tom Temin: I was gonna say the big data emphasis kind of backs up to the type of infrastructure that the agency finds optimal for handling it all.

Andrea Norris: We have a program we call the Strides program. We partnered, we went to industry a couple of years ago, the big cloud platform providers and said, ‘Look, we want to lower the bar of entry for the researchers around the country that we find, to lower the cost, help them with training, the skill sets, the tools that they need to be able to bring their data, bring their algorithms, bring their tools to the cloud, to these big resources, do their work there, and then share and leave what they’ve learned and developed for the next researcher. And would you be willing to go down this experiential journey with us and work not just in partnership with NIH and our researchers on campus, but with everyone that we fund around the country?’ And so we’ve had great partnerships with Google and Amazon, we’ve moved almost 100 petabytes of data in the last 18 months into the cloud, hundreds of programs from universities and research centers all over the country. And so it’s really quite exciting to train thousands of researchers as well, that’s a big part of it. And so just watching that kind of change, and how you think about and bring people together, building that foundation, those networks that approach to collaborative science, that is what’s helped us really help do science at the speed of infection during this COVID pandemic. And building off of all of these investments over many years, but especially over these most recent years, in our investments in collaborative data, science and research.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Andrea Norris, Chief Information Officer of the NIH, and the new inductee into the National Academy of Public Administration. And talk a little bit about how the pivot to telework happened and how it’s affected NIH if it has actually affected it in some fundamental way.

Andrea Norris: Yeah, so March 13. We said that was a Friday, effective Monday. We’re going into a maximum remote working status. So we have about 40,000 people in our Bethesda campus collectively, on or near. We had about a day or two notice to do that. We were worried. NIH has — the leadership has — always really, really seen the power and the importance of technology and the role that it plays in our mission. And so what they had invested in the infrastructure and capability to assure we were going to be able to do this. So the technology was not our limitation. There were some transitions. I won’t say there weren’t a few little bumps and bruises along the way. People adjusted. But to be honest, I’m still in awe at how pretty seamless it was. We work very collaboratively. So we do a tremendous amount of meetings and scientific reviews and workshops and peer review of the research that we’ve done. So in the first six months, we conducted more than 1.2 million virtual meetings involving more than 4 million participants just out of our Bethesda campus area.

Tom Temin: They all didn’t have to drive down Rockville Pike either.

Andrea Norris: Yes. So it is pretty staggering. And we just had a leadership summit last week. And we talked about that, some of the experiences with this and all agreed that no matter what we believe the virtual world is here to stay for us. We still see, obviously, the need for face to face, nothing replaces that. But we see the advantages, there’s cost, there’s efficiencies, there’s quality of life, we think we can get people to come and help participate in the scientific peer review process that we might not be able to get if they don’t have to travel. So there’s a lot of wins on that. We do have about 35-40% of our staff that are on campus, working largely in our labs. That is one where you really have to be there. In most cases on the bench at the labs themselves. We have about 100 plus labs and facilities there at our various campuses. And so they’re the ones who are really there on site and the folks that have to absolutely be there to support. But the rest, we’re still in a remote working mode and have been highly productive, I think.

Tom Temin: What do you hope to work on at Napa? What kinds of projects do you think you’ll have time for?

Andrea Norris: Yeah, I’m so honored to be able to be a fellow at NAPA. And it’s been really exciting last week, and this week is the annual meeting. And so it’s given me a chance to sit in on a number of the sessions and get a feel for some of the different topic areas and groups that they’re working on. I’m going to be particularly interested in the technology areas, cyber, artificial intelligence, data and data science and the human issues associated with data and privacy and security. Also some of the workforce issues with the public sector. I’ve spent a long career in three of the most outstanding science and engineering agencies: NASA, National Science Foundation and NIH. And it’s been wonderful opportunities and I want to do what I can do to help attract other generations into the public sector for the kinds of careers that they can have in disciplines that I’m not sure always we do as good a job marketing that in a systemic way. So I’m hoping to be able to help work with some activities in that area as well.

Tom Temin: Andrea Norris is CIO of the National Institutes of Health and the new member of the National Academy of Public Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.

Andrea Norris: Thank you, Tom.

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