NIH Targets Structural Racism in Biomedical Research
Earlier this month, NIH launched a wide-ranging, comprehensive initiative to end structural racism in biomedical research. A five-committee group—called “UNITE”—that consists of a cross-section of more than 75 NIH’ers from all 27 institutes and centers will guide the long-term initiative.
“The time for upholding our values and taking an active stance against racism, in all its insidious forms, is long overdue,” said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins, in a Mar. 1 statement. “As a science agency, we know that bringing diverse perspectives, backgrounds and skillsets to complex scientific problems enhances scientific productivity. NIH has long supported programs to improve the diversity of the scientific workforce with the goal of harnessing the complete intellectual capital of the nation. These efforts, however, have not been sufficient. To those individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism, I am truly sorry. NIH is committed to instituting new ways to support diversity, equity and inclusion, and identifying and dismantling any policies and practices that may harm our workforce and our science.”
UNITE is an acronym for the five target areas and major strategies of the initiative:
U-understanding stakeholder experiences through listening and learning; N-new research on health disparities, minority health and health equities; I-improving the NIH culture and structure for equity, inclusion and excellence; T-transparency, communication and accountability with internal and external stakeholders; and E-extramural research ecosystem—changing policy, culture and structure to promote workforce diversity.
UNITE co-chairs are NIH principal deputy director Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIH deputy director for management Dr. Alfred Johnson and NIA deputy director Dr. Marie Bernard, who also serves as acting NIH chief of scientific workforce diversity.
For the last 6 months or so, UNITE has been meeting to develop the foundation for the initiative. On Feb. 26, the group presented the concept to a special virtual meeting of the advisory committee to the NIH director (ACD). ACD members welcomed UNITE with enthusiasm and unanimous support.
“We’re at an important juncture in our nation’s experience and reckoning with race,” said ACD member Dr. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University. “On the one hand, the spotlight really has been shone brightly in exposing the inequities that have disadvantaged Black people for centuries. This has had a positive effect in that many people and institutions are using this moment to assess their own contributions to systemic racism and make meaningful change. But I’m also bewildered at acts of overt racism that are being played out with increasing frequency and blatant openness. So, we have to leverage the positive momentum over the negative. NIH is in a unique position to move the needle in addressing systemic racism in the scientific workforce and to promote cultural change in the scientific community.”
As part of UNITE’s launch, a new website https://www.nih.gov/ending-structural-racism went live with details of the initiative and resources for the public. In addition, a Request for Information (RFI)—https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-21-066.html—seeks input from the public and stakeholder organizations. The RFI is open through Friday, Apr. 9; responses to the RFI will be made publicly available.
“We cannot underestimate the challenges before us,” Collins noted in his statement. “Identifying and dismantling racist components of a system that has been hundreds of years in the making is no easy task. This is just the beginning of an effort that has a concrete goal of achieving racial equity but has no scheduled end point…
“At the most fundamental level, the NIH mission is about the respect of human life and dignity, which should permeate all aspects of our lives and work. The National Institutes of Health is also known as the National Institutes of Hope. With optimism, I invite you to join NIH in our efforts to bring health and hope to all people—because together we’re stronger.”