NIH Stands Against Structural Racism in Biomedical Research

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I am proud to join my NIH colleagues today in reaffirming our commitment to fostering a diverse biomedical research workforce and ending structural racism at NIH, the institutions we support, and anywhere where NIH research activities take place. Working together, we can continue identifying and dismantling any policies, practices, or other impediments that may harm our supported workforce and science.

We encourage you to join us in this effort. Please take a moment to read the statement below from the NIH Director on achieving racial equity in biomedical research and visit our new webpage, which includes more on the UNITE initiative. You are also welcome to share your thoughts and ideas to our Request for Information directly with us here.

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Although addressing the COVID-19 pandemic has been front and center for NIH over the past year, we have not forgotten another significant challenge confronting the health of our nation — systemic and structural racism. The events of 2020 highlighted the reality of our nation’s racial injustices that have been allowed to endure over four centuries and that significantly disadvantage the lives of so many. The time for upholding our values and taking an active stance against racism, in all its insidious forms, is long overdue.

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.

Toward that end, NIH has launched an effort to end structural racism in biomedical research through a new initiative called UNITE. The initiative has already begun to identify short-term and long-term actions to address structural racism at NIH, the institutions we support, and anywhere where NIH research activities take place, with the overall goal of ending racial inequities across the biomedical research enterprise. The UNITE initiative’s efforts are being informed by five committees with experts across all 27 NIH institutes and centers who are passionate about racial diversity, equity, and inclusion. NIH also is seeking advice and guidance from outside of the agency through the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), informed by the ACD Working Group on Diversity, and through a Request for Information (RFI) issued today, seeking input from the public and stakeholder organizations. The RFI is open through April 23, 2021, and responses to the RFI will be made publicly available. You can learn more about NIH’s efforts, actions, policies, and procedures via a newly launched NIH webpage on Ending Structural Racism aimed at increasing our transparency on this important issue.

We cannot underestimate the challenges before us. 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. Our intention is to apply what we learn from this initiative to all future actions centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion for other groups who have been marginalized. Our resolve must be unflinching – it must not waver in the face of difficulties or tire at the magnitude of the problem. I have faith that as a people and as an enterprise, we are up to the task. We are reliable, capable, and resilient because of our many races, ethnicities, cultures, faiths, gender identities, sexual orientations, ages, abilities, talents, and backgrounds. Collectively, our diversification fuels our creativity and drives innovation.

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.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health

Update: edited to reflect the  extended deadline of April 23, 2021.

15 Comments

  1. Dear Dr. Collins —

    How exactly have you implemented structural racism at NIH? If you’re the Director, aren’t you responsible for this. Why would you even want to implement it? As a tax paying citizen, I am appalled that you would condone, let alone promote racism. Please explain.

  2. What is the evidence for so-called “structural racism” at NIH? What does this even mean? If the de facto evidence is that a white male is Director, then the obvious solution is for Francis Collins to step down immediately, if he really cares about “structural racism.” In his place, a black transgender or gender fluid individual needs to be appointed. Because clearly, the most important qualifications are skin color and genitalia.

  3. What is the actual evidence for “structural racism”? The existence of racial disparities just raises a question; it does not provide an answer.

    1. “Racial disparities” in health outcomes or with success in biomedical careers for certain minority groups do not necessarily mean that there is “structural racism,” which I will take to mean “discrimination.” (Oddly, the NIH Director does not define this term.) As John Staddon points out, there are many possible explanations. Before hand-wringing apologies, why not show the actual data. Seems that NIH leadership is blindly jumping to a lot of conclusions which are driven by wokeness rather than data.

  4. I would like to commend Dr. Collins and the rest of the NIH for committing to address this important issue.

    And in response to the previous 4 commenters… You need to educate yourselves about what structural and systemic racism are, and how they influence our lives. Denying that unfair policies in education, policing, housing, voting, hiring/promotion, research focus, etc. based on race have shaped the institutions of the world today is ignorant and unhelpful. Here are a few commentaries you might want to peruse, along with the sources they cite:

    https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMms2025396

    https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6505/780.3

    Lastly, the solution to this problem isn’t for white males to all abdicate their positions. An important part of the solution is for all people in positions of power to use their power to work towards equity and justice for all. So, again, I commend Dr. Collins for taking on this responsibility.

    1. In regard to “unfair” practices, these are omnipresent. Every human has faced them at some time. But adopting an entitled, self-pitying, victim-like attitude is not an emotionally mature, healthy, or attractive approach.

    2. Disparity is not discrimination. Correlation is not causation. I find it amazing that the United States is so incredibly, unredeemabley racist that we had a black president and a black vice president. I find it amazing that we are so racist that we have a black judge on the SCOTUS. Oh, the highest paid basketball player is black. Oh, the surgeon general was black. Oh, one of the most prestigious neurosurgeon is black. Oh, one of the most heralded economists ever is black.
      You cite those papers regarding disparities and then state that we need to get educated- so if you were around in the 20s and 30s, would you have been citing papers in support of eugenics? I mean, you imply that you have implicit biases and cite scientific works. So you telling those previous reviewers that they need to “educate themselves on systemic racism,” makes me respond that you are just following the same popular notions of the day, and I’d hazard a guess that you would have been on the eugenics bandwagon if you were alive back then.

  5. It is curious and troubling that biological sex has completely disappeared in the every-growing list.

  6. What is asserted without evidence should be dismissed without argument. This is one of the most anti-scientific statements I have ever read. That it comes from the highest levels of NIH leadership is extremely disappointing.

  7. Funding Bias: Institution and State are as Important as Race

    I applaud the NIH for finally recognizing—a decade after the groundbreaking report from Ginther et al.—the need to address the profound disparities in allocations of NIH grant funding among investigators grouped by race. I hope that this initiative will lead to substantive, long-overdue improvements.

    Unfortunately, director Collins’ current focus on “structural racism” ignores what is a far greater problem.

    Disparities in NIH grant application success rates and award sizes (i.e., access to funding) among investigators grouped by institution and by state are even greater than those for investigators grouped by race. The impacts of differences in success rates and award sizes are multiplicative, leading to heavily skewed allocations of funding. For example, just 2% of NIH-supported institutions get about 53% of all research project grant dollars (2019 PNAS 116:13150-13154).

    There is, to my knowledge, no valid scientific basis for the differences in access to funding among investigators grouped by race, institution and state. The disparities are not only inequitable, they also undermine the diversity and productivity of the biomedical research enterprise (e.g., 2018 eLIFE 7:e34965).

    *** I call upon director Collins and the NIH to address all forms of disparity, not just those associated with the race of the principle investigator. ***

    Part of the solution is, in my opinion, simple. As early as the next cycle of funding, the NIH could close the wide gaps in grant application success rates and award sizes for investigators grouped by race, institution and state. A good place to start might be with the geographical disparities, which the NIH has ostensibly been trying to ameliorate—without any substantive improvements—since 1991.

    1. With regard to previous comment, why should the focus be on the demographics of scientific awards, rather than the quality and utilitarian impact of a body of work on larger society? Why is “equity” suddenly more important than excellence, the Greek ideal of arete or virtue, which benefits everyone? These days, the new “woke science” reflects virtue signaling more than actual virtue. As Heather McDonald has written, “woke science is an experiment that is bound to fail.” No one has ever shown a causal relationship, that disparities in grant funding are due to racial or sexual discrimination of any kind. Is NIH prepared to disregard merit in favor of mediocrity? Why are a creator’s sex, race, or geographical location relevant to her scientific work? Like any great human endeavor, scientific excellence exists in a plane of its own, distinct from these superficial concerns. Let’s deal with data rather than stoking emotions or dwelling on victimhood.

      1. I value the response from Alexis Papadapoulis, which nicely illustrates the need for applying the scientific approach to understand, and, if warranted, correct disparities in allocations of NIH research project grant funding.

        The fact that there are large differences in grant application success rates and award sizes (whose impacts on allocations of funding are multiplicative) among investigators grouped by race, by institution and by state does not necessarily indicate that the funding process is biased.

        However, as pointed out by NIH director Francis Collins, NIH deputy director of extramural research Michael Lauer, NIGMS director Jon Lorsch, and many others, the disparities in allocations of funding are counterproductive. A broader, more demographically balanced distribution of NIH grant funding would improve the diversity and productivity of the biomedical research enterprise. An abundance of data, including those published by the NIH, support this conclusion.

        Papadapoilis and others might argue that the “meritocracy” of the funding process justifies the disparities in allocations of funding. Based on currently available data, this is a scientifically indefensible argument. It asks us to believe that African American/Black scientists are somehow inferior to White scientists; that investigators in states like Mississippi are somehow inferior to those in states like Massachusetts, and that scientists at places like West Virginia University are somehow inferior to those at places like Stanford University.

        With regard to whether allocations of funding are biased, Papadapolis suggests that we should “deal with data rather than stoking emotions or dwelling on victimhood.” I agree, although I disagree with the assertion that “no one has ever shown a causal relationship” that links discrimination to disparity.

        Setting aside the emotionally charged issue of “institutional racism”, data do indicate that the NIH funding process is biased. For example, over a recent, ten-year period, the NIH favored prestigious institutions with 65% higher grant application success rates and 50% larger award sizes, relative to less prestigious institutions (2019 PNAS 116:13150-13154 and refs therein). This occurred even though the disfavored institutions produced 65% more publications and had a 35% higher citation impact per dollar of grant funding than the favored institutions.

        *** Let me reemphasize my original thesis. Disparities in allocations of NIH grant funding are even greater for investigators grouped by institution and by state than they are for investigators grouped by race. The NIH should address the underlying causes of such disparities, which are wide gaps in grant application success rates and award sizes for investigators grouped by institution and by state. ***

  8. Why does the NIH not address the structural discrimination based on disability? People with disabilities are discriminated against in the workplace (the NIH’s physical facilities, its programs and activities, and its digital contents/information and communication technologies are all less than adequately accessible).

    People with disabilities are discriminated against in healthcare access, experiencing healthcare inequities and healthcare disparities at least as great as those experienced by persons of color.

    and yet, the NIH engages in zero affirmative action for people with disabilities (as required by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) and engages in zero efforts to improve its physical and digital/ICT accessibility, thus assertively engaging in discrimination against employees with disabilities and members of the public with disabilities.

    These reactionary, non-holistic and responsive, actions to address very real inequities blatantly exclude people with disabilities – “maybe next year we’ll get to them”. The civil rights of persons with disabilities are actively dismissed and marginalized by NIH’s diversity efforts. If these activities are to address racial inequities, then be honest and transparent and call it that – but it’s not ‘diversity’.

    NIH’s commitment to people with disabilities, as employees or as members of the public, is non-existent. It’s compliance with the Rehab Act of 1973, in all of its parts, is an abject failure. Both the NIH Scientific Workforce Diversity (SWD) Office and the NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) should be ashamed of themselves and be held accountable, along with the rest of NIH management.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. We would encourage you to also share your thoughts for NIH’s consideration via the RFI, which is accepting comments until April 8th. You may also find this Open Mike blog post of interest, which references a Guide Notice pointing to NIH’s interest in diversifying the workforce, including as it relates to persons with disabilities. https://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2019/11/26/expanding-nihs-definition-of-socio-economic-disadvantaged-to-be-more-inclusive-and-diversify-the-workforce/

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