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Stephen Heinig, Director, Science Policy
Anurupa Dev, Lead Specialist, Science Policy

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, announced a new agency initiative on March 1 to address structural racism in biomedical research. The director also apologized to scientists for the persistence of racist barriers across the agency, including disparities in research programs and in health outcomes from NIH-supported research — especially barriers confronting Black and African American scientists and communities.

Collins’ initial remarks were made at a special meeting of the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) on Feb. 26, in which the committee’s Working Group on Diversity presented its review of NIH research programs.

While the NIH has made progress over the last decade in attracting and funding more research applications from Black principal investigators, disparities remain. NIH Acting Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity Marie Bernard, MD, Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson, MD, and colleagues presented the working group’s report and priorities for research supporting the umbrella initiative, which the NIH has called UNITE.

The priorities are to:

  • Listen, learn, and articulate findings;
  • Engage internal and external communities;
  • Change culture to promote equity, inclusivity, and justice;
  • Improve policies, transparency, and oversight;
  • Strengthen career pathways, training, mentoring, and the professoriate;
  • Ensure fairness in review and funding deliberations; and
  • Enhance funding and research support for diverse institutions and historically under-resourced research areas.

The ACD unanimously approved two concept clearances under the NIH Common Fund to permit NIH staff to develop new efforts for the initiative. The first clearance was for projects to be funded in the current fiscal year as pilot demonstrations for interventions. The second supported development of more comprehensive programs with the aim to be funded by fiscal year 2023.

The NIH subsequently issued a request for information seeking the public’s input to “advance racial equity, diversity, and inclusion within all facets of the biomedical research workforce, and expand research to eliminate or lessen health disparities and inequities.” The feedback will also help guide the UNITE initiative. Comments are due April 9.

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