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The UNITE Initiative: Charging Forward on the Road to Racial Equity in the Biomedical Workforce

March 01, 2021

Several important events in 2020 highlighted the nation’s struggle with racial injustice and brought a new focus on structural racism within science and medicine. For many, including myself as acting Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity (COSWD), this topic has been a concern and focus for much longer. The Scientific Workforce Diversity office (SWD) since its inception has focused on the goals of sustaining nationwide diversity and understanding the role of sociocultural factors in the biomedical workforce—key factors in combating structural and systemic racism. Last week’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) meeting marked a major milepost in the marathon to achieving racial equity in the scientific workforce.

Joining us on this journey is the newly announced UNITE Initiative, a NIH-wide effort committed to ending racial inequities across the biomedical research enterprise. It was born from a series of Institute and Center (IC) Directors meetings, and was driven forward when two self-assembled groups, the 8 Changes for Racial Equity (8CRE) and the African American/Black Scientists affinity group, along with the Anti-Harassment Steering Committee, met with NIH leadership for candid discussions that informed some poignant next steps.

Inspired by the UNITE mission, the message across NIH is clear: we must commit to addressing systemic and structural racism within the biomedical workforce at NIH, the myriad of extramural institutions we support, and anywhere NIH research activities take place.

UNITE’s organizational structure reflects the collective effort needed to achieve this significant goal. It is composed of five high-level committees with representatives from all 27 NIH ICs who are passionate about addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Each committee is represented by a different letter of the UNITE acronym and has a specific, targeted focus:

  • Understanding stakeholder experiences through listening and learning
  • New research on health disparities/minority health/health inequity
  • Improving the NIH culture and structure for equity, inclusion, and excellence
  • Transparency, communication, and accountability with NIH’s internal and external stakeholders
  • Extramural research ecosystem and changing policy, culture, and structure to promote workforce diversity

As the name suggests, this is truly a united effort. SWD will work closely with UNITE on its powerful set of recommendations designed to support and maintain equity at all levels of the biomedical workforce.

We are invested in the success of these recommendations, particularly the commitment to continue to aggressively implement approaches to address the racial gap in NIH funding. Targeting the NIH funding difference between African American and/or Black scientists and their white counterparts has been a core focus of SWD's programming. Additionally, we look forward to amplifying the UNITE recommendation to develop a sustainable process that systematically gathers and makes public the demographics of the NIH-internal and external workforce. Our office has catalyzed this process, laying the early foundations with our work within NIH through the SWD Network Platform and the NIH Equity Committee, and we will work to leverage our experiences to help UNITE advance this goal.

The recommendation to appoint a senior-level DEI officer in every IC to track, advance, and coordinate IC-specific and NIH-wide DEI efforts will be of great benefit to the ICs and SWD alike. This is because we regularly work with ICs to provide evidence-based implicit bias training and conduct searches to identify diverse candidates for open positions. Additional support from an IC-DEI officer could empower these current efforts and benefit NIH as a whole.

Lastly, one of our most successful programs, the Distinguished Scholars Program (DSP), was recognized in a recommendation to expand DSP to include senior investigators. In doing so, this would enhance the recruitment of underrepresented investigators within that career stage for open Intramural Research Program (IRP) positions. Expanding DSP will further address the disparities in representation noted within NIH’s scientific workforce and may have other reverberating effects for the larger NIH-funded community.

UNITE’s initial recommendations are action-oriented and set a great initial pace. NIH has already begun delivering on the promises, issuing a Request for Information (RFI) today—seeking input from the public and stakeholder organizations. NIH is also moving forward in other ways, and you can learn more about related actions, policies, and procedures via a newly launched webpage on Ending Structural Racism. This webpage is aimed at increasing our transparency on this important issue.

Although this is only the start of what may well be an ultra-marathon, we applaud the pace that has been set. UNITE is expected to move us significantly further down the road to eliminating systemic and structural racism within the biomedical enterprise. SWD remains committed in its collaborative efforts with UNITE, other NIH partners, and stakeholders invested in supporting DEI within the biomedical community. Moving forward together is the only way to ensure we continue making progress along this trek to dismantle systemic racism in the scientific workforce.