The IGSP: 'Asking Big'

When Huntington Willard, director of the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy (IGSP), prepared to move into his office at his new headquarters, he requested that a doorway be built directly between his office and his laboratory, in addition to the existing doorway leading to the rest of the IGSP.

His research staff knows that when the lab door is open, they have free access to Willard the scientist. And his IGSP staff knows that when the hall door is open, they have free access to Willard the IGSP director.

In a similar manner, Willard, who became director in 2003, has launched himself into the intellectual doorway business--both creating and opening them. That's vital, he says, because Duke conceived the IGSP as drawing on faculty members across the university, from widely disparate fields: scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, policymakers, business economists, ethicists, theologians, and humanists. His conceptual carpentry has sought not only to construct doorways between all of these disciplines, but also to include them under one "metaphorical roof," as he puts it. The IGSP should take an integrated approach to helping society cope with the profound, pervasive impact of the genome revolution, he says.

Still, the institute's motto, "Ask Big," reflects an ecumenical philosophy that isn't widely appreciated at other universities. "They don't understand putting science and policy together. Very few places are doing that, and no place is doing it as seriously and with the breadth and depth that we are. Frankly, the concept of the genome revolution impacting not just science, but literally everything else that goes on in life, does not yet resonate with other institutions. They can't believe that we teach classes on genomics in the English department or in the Divinity School."

When speaking of the IGSP's research aspirations, Willard emphasizes that Ask Big does not mean Ask Everything. "We're not going to solve every problem that's out there either on the ethical and policy front or on the discovery front," he says. "But, I think we can pick key questions where Duke has the right set of tools, the right people, the right ethos to figure out approaches that other groups can't."

A prime example of his strategy is IGSP's new Center for Genomic Medicine. The center will create health-care systems that apply genomic discoveries to clinical practice. "Changes in health care frighten people," says Willard, "and very few institutions are well positioned to grapple with what could be bewildering wholesale changes in medicine--going from the reactionary system that we have now to one that is prospective and highly personalized. But that is the mark Duke is going to make. And the impact of creating an effective genomic medicine system here will go far beyond making one key discovery or even a handful of key discoveries. The center really will provide an example that can be shared nationally and internationally."

Willard envisions an IGSP where scientific discoveries will help usher in an era of genomic medicine in which analysis of a drop of a baby's blood can reveal whether she will be vulnerable, as she ages, to heart attack, stroke, or cancer. But Willard believes that IGSP's ethicists, policymakers, and legal scholars will venture far beyond clinical advances to solve the broad social problems that will enable this powerful knowledge to create a healthier life for that child.

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