Taking action against structural racism

Graphic showing link to NIH’s ending structural racism page.

The National Institutes of Health recently launched a new initiative to eliminate the pernicious threat of structural racism from the agency, the institutions it supports, and wherever NIH research takes place. This effort is described by the acronym UNITE, which underscores its primary goals: Understanding stakeholder experiences through listening and learning; New research on health disparities/minority health, and health equities; Improving the NIH Culture and Structure for equity, inclusion and excellence; Transparency, communication and accountability with our internal and external stakeholders; and the Extramural Research Ecosystem: Changing Policy, Culture, and Structure to Promote Workforce Diversity.

Like our current struggle with SARS-CoV-2, structural racism decreases economic opportunity, diminishes health, and erodes intellectual capital. To help eradicate this covert threat, UNITE has assembled five committees. Their goal is to foster diversity and inclusion, to end policies and practices that discriminate against NIH’s workforce and deplete its scientific achievement. The initiative will be guided by the NIH Advisory Committee to the Director’s Working Group on Diversity, charged with assisting in the development of diversity-related strategies for NIH. A recently issued Request for Information also seeks advice from public and stakeholder groups.

Unequivocally, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) fully supports the UNITE initiative and NICHD staff have been intricately involved in developing it and serving on its committees. NICHD has led efforts to optimize health for all and to foster an inclusive, diverse workforce. However, social factors continue to drive health disparities, and unequal career opportunities persist.

In response to these lingering inequalities, our institute has earlier laid the groundwork to work in tandem with UNITE and eliminate structural racism from the NICHD’s workforce and scientific endeavors. Through its Office of Health Equity, NICHD has created the STrategies to EnRich Inclusion and AchieVe Equity (STRIVE) committees to produce three comprehensive Action Plans to inform the institute’s strategic plan. These Action Plans will be implemented over the next 5 years to reinforce workforce equity and inclusion, foster diversity in the institute’s external workforce, and identify new research opportunities to reduce such drivers of health disparity as structural racism and discrimination. Committee members will include a diverse cadre of staff who represent various career paths and command diverse skillsets. The STRIVE Action Plans will encompass three distinct but inter-related themes: equity, diversity, and inclusion within NICHD’s internal workforce, diversity of trainees and grantees, and the planning of health disparities research across the institute’s Division of Intramural Research, Division of Intramural Population Health Research, and Division of Extramural Research.  NICHD is planning a series of external workshops over the coming months to inform the actions of committee members. This effort will be enriched through interactions with NIH’s UNITE, NICHD advisory boards, extramural researchers and professional scientific organizations, as well as national and community-based organizations representing diverse populations.

Eliminating structural racism is a daunting task, but a challenge the STRIVE effort must surmount to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce the burdens of illness and disability. I pledge NICHD’s continued support to UNITE and ask NICHD’s workforce and external stakeholders for their help in achieving this ambitious yet essential goal.

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