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NIH Advisory Committee Discusses COVID-19, UNITE Initiative in Two-Day Meeting

December 17, 2021

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CONTACTS
Julia Omotade, Sr. Science Policy Specialist
Stephen Heinig, Director, Science Policy

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) met virtually on Dec. 9-10 to hear insights about the NIH’s continuing efforts to foster COVID-19 preparedness, launch the NIH’s initiative to address structural racism, and discuss the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to advance health equity and researcher diversity.

The committee is composed of members largely drawn from the academic and private sector research community and is chaired by NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD. Notably, this was the last NIH ACD meeting presided over by Collins, who steps down from the position on Dec. 19 [refer to Washington Highlights, Oct. 8]. In conjunction with the ACD meeting, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra announced that NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak, DDS, PhD, would take on the role of acting director on Dec. 20.

In his remarks, Collins noted the many accomplishments that the ACD had contributed to during his tenure as director, including establishing the new National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; strengthening the biomedical research and physician scientist workforce; promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in NIH research and promoting safer workplaces free of harassment; and addressing foreign influences on research integrity. He highlighted the contribution of several ACD members also stepping off the committee this year, including M. Roy Wilson, MD, president of Wayne State University and a former AAMC chair. Committee members thanked the director for the legacy he established. Collins told the ACD that he would be focusing on managing his NIH lab, which conducts diabetes and progeria research, in what he described as a “sabbatical year.”  

The Dec. 9 webcast opened with Collins’ remarks and updates from NIH Associate Director for Budget Neil Shapiro and NIH Associate Director for Legislative Policy and Analysis Adrienne Hallett, who reported that the NIH is currently operating under a continuing resolution until Feb. 18 [refer to Washington Highlights, Dec. 3]. Hallett also noted the announced departures of several key NIH supporters in Congress, including Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), adding that the turnover and upcoming congressional elections heightens the need for education and outreach to new representatives and their staffs.   

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, MD, provided an update on COVID-19 clinical and treatment advances, as well as insight on the coronavirus variants of interest and concern. In response to the national pandemic, the NIH has initiated and expanded interdisciplinary networks meant to foster collaboration between scientists, clinicians, researchers, the community, and organizations. Thursday’s session featured pandemic-related updates about the progress of two such COVID-19 initiatives — Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) and Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER). These programs aim to speed innovation in the development, commercialization, and implementation of technologies for COVID-19 testing and to understand, prevent, and treat post-acute sequalae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), respectively. In December 2020, Congress allocated $1.15 billion over four years for the NIH to support research investigating PASC [refer to Washington Highlights, Dec. 23, 2020], and in February 2021, the NIH launched the PASC Initiative to develop ways to treat or prevent PASC.

The first day also included a presentation by Susan Gregurick, PhD, associate director for data science at the NIH, and Elaine Nsoesie, PhD, assistant professor of global health at Boston University School of Public Health, on the NIH’s Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) program. AIM-AHEAD is intended to establish mutually beneficial and coordinated partnerships that increase the participation and representation of researchers and communities currently underrepresented in the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning models. In early November, the AIM-AHEAD program held its first meeting that included all partners, regional hubs, and cores. In early September, the AAMC submitted a letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation in response to a request for information geared toward developing a shared, national artificial intelligence research infrastructure referred to as the National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource [refer to Washington Highlights, Sept. 10].

The Dec. 10 webcast included various presentations focusing on the NIH’s plan to foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) in the biomedical scientific community and workforce. Marie Bernard, MD, the NIH’s chief officer for scientific workforce diversity, discussed the motivation, scope, leadership, and rollout of the NIH-wide DEIA strategic plan. The second day of the ACD meeting also included an update on the NIH UNITE initiative,which seeks to “identify and address structural racism within the NIH-supported and the greater scientific community” [refer to Washington Highlights, April 8 and March 5].

The UNITE initiative is organized into five committees with “separate but coordinated objectives on tackling the problem of racism and discrimination in science.” The Dec. 10 meeting included updates from UNITE’s five committee leaders, highlighting areas of coordination, barriers, and progress to date. The segment concluded with a presentation by Eliseo Pérez-Stable, MD, director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and co-chair of the Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program. Pérez-Stable detailed how the FIRST program utilizes a faculty “cohort model” to advance a culture of inclusive excellence at NIH-funded institutions.

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