Thoughts from the Dean

Transforming Biomedical Research

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January 14, 2015
Transforming Biomedical Research

Announcing new HMS Department of Biomedical Informatics

In a recent email to the HMS community, I announced that HMS will launch a new Department of Biomedical Informatics on July 1, 2015. Academic departments play a key role in the life and evolution of schools, so the creation of a new academic department at Harvard Medical School is a moment for reflection about both the process and the purpose of such decisions.

Academic departments facilitate the development of academic disciplines and their associated communities of scholars.  Since biomedicine and research are constantly evolving, the departments that embrace these disciplines must evolve as well. The precedent at Harvard Medical School has been to periodically create, end and/or modify appointing departments to reflect new disciplinary and organizational realities.

First, what about the field? A cursory reading of the biomedical literature over the past 20 plus years reveals the emergence of a new field known variably as bioinformatics and biomedical informatics. Beginning with a few stalwart innovators, many at HMS, there are now national professional societies, graduate degrees, a responsible unit at NIH, and increasingly, academic centers and departments at academic institutions.

The use of bioinformatic methodologies to manage and interrogate big data, from molecular to clinical to social media, is critical to many disciplines. Bringing these data and derived knowledge to  clinical care is a central challenge for clinical medicine and a focus of clinical informatics. These approaches are increasingly employed and there are scholars for whom the advancement of these techniques and approaches is central to their academic lives. Given these considerations, it is our judgment that a new Department of Biomedical Informatics will both advance the field and provide an appropriate academic home to leading practitioners across our institutions.

Regarding process, our 10-year experience with the nondepartmental HMS Center for Biomedical Informatics was judged to be highly successful. Over the past several years, as the salience of the field increased, we engaged in extensive formal and informal conversations with faculty and leaders across HMS and its various departments. We then asked a group of external advisors with great expertise and judgment to advise the School on the status of the field and the appropriateness of establishing a new department. Finally, we discussed the issue with Harvard's Provost Alan Garber to gain the university's perspective on a new appointing department in this area.

The judgment was favorable, and we then developed a responsible plan for the organization and implementation of the new department.

It is our hope and expectation that the new department will thrive as an academic unit with faculty on the Quad and affiliated institutions and that it will exert favorable effects beyond the department, within Harvard University and nationally. I extend my personal best wishes to the inaugural chair, Zak Kohane, his many valued colleagues and the entire HMS bioinformatics community for success in the years ahead.