Graeff grows IT culture at NIH

At the National Institutes of Health, where scientific breakthroughs are the mission, chief information officer Alan Graeff has made a career of information technology firsts.

Before Graeff became the first NIH CIO, he spearheaded the development of standard desktop applications at the agency's Clinical Center. In an earlier job, he deployed the first local-area and wide-area networks for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

"I see my career growing with distributed systems,'' he said. "We've seen the same sort of growth path in terms of how bench scientists and research scientists have gravitated to using computers. When I started working at NIH, desktop computers were few and far between. Through the '80s and the '90s we've seen desktop computing become ubiquitous.''

Now, one of Graeff's biggest challenges is to unite those desktops by getting employees to use common administrative and office automation applications and by providing ways for scientists to collaborate online. The 24 NIH institutes and centers, which control their own budgets, have always decided for themselves which information systems they need. While their independence has created an "impressive'' IT infrastructure, according to a recent NIH management study by Arthur Andersen, the agency is not necessarily getting the most it can out of its $276 million IT budget.

"One of my goals is to embrace that culture, to take the best of breed and make that available across NIH,'' Graeff said.

The New Jersey native brings to the job a firsthand appreciation for his customers' independence. He joined Bethesda, Md.-based NIH as a biologist in 1977 after graduating with a degree in distributed sciences from American University in nearby Washington, D.C.

He had already spent his undergraduate years working at the agency, starting with a summer job. Continuing there meant Graeff could maintain the academic lifestyle he enjoyed. "It was Mecca,'' he said.

He did research in immunology, the study of immunity from disease, co-authoring 21 papers. He started writing computer programs when his laboratory needed some automated tools to analyze the data it was collecting. "We were doing data analysis of laboratory samples of flow cytometry,'' a technique used in AIDS and cancer research for collecting data about cells from blood or tissue samples. "As the amount of data we were working with continued to grow, the use of computer technology for storage and retrieval was becoming more and more applied.''

IT "became a passion,'' he said, and he realized he wanted to change careers. He made the switch when a position at NIAID, where he was a researcher, opened up in 1987.

Graeff was not NIH's first choice to be CIO. The agency offered the job to a candidate from a major pharmaceutical company, who turned it down, prompting NIH to seek new applicants last year. "I was aware of that process, and it really wasn't a concern of mine,'' he said. "I thought I was up for the challenge of the job.''

He has been handed an agenda crafted by various NIH IT committees during the past few years— an agenda that had not been carried out. "Part of the problem in the past [was] many groups would make recommendations, but there was no place for those recommendations to go,'' said Graeff, who served on some of those panels.

Graeff is focusing now on building consensus throughout NIH to put those ideas into practice.

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