US National Institutes of Health commits to ending racism in biomedical science

Scientists, administrators, staff and leaders at the NIH have laid out their framework under the UNITE initiative to end structural racism in the biomedical industry.

Closeup of diverse people joining their hands - idea of ending racism and encouraging diversity, equality and inclusion

In a new commentary, stakeholders from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) have acknowledged that structural racism has been a chronic problem in US society and the biomedical industry and committed to ending the problem within the industry.

In the commentary, scientists, administrators, staff and leaders at the institutes outlined the framework they intend to use to end structural racism across the biomedical research enterprise and spur much needed widescale, systematic changes. They have names the project the UNITE initiative, as it is the first time all NIH Institutes and Centers are jointly focused on structural racism in biomedical science — both within the agency and throughout the biomedical workforce, as well as in the research NIH supports.

The commentary begins: “As scientists, administrators, staff, and leaders at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), we take this opportunity to acknowledge that structural racism has been a chronic problem in our society, and biomedical science is far from free of its stain.” The authors went on to say that the NIH Director extends his apologies to anyone in the biomedical science industry who have suffered disadvantages due to structural racism. They also concede that despite internal and collaborative efforts, the array of initiatives undertaken over the years to enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion “are clearly not of sufficient scale or scope to spur the type of widescale systemic changes that will be needed to promote diversity and inclusion across the entire biomedical research enterprise.”

Thus the UNITE Initiative was set up. It has five committees – each represented by a letter in the title:


Understanding stakeholder experiences through listening and learning


New research on health disparities, minority health, and health equity


Improving the NIH culture and structure for equity, inclusion, and excellence


Transparency, communication, and accountability with our internal and external stakeholders


Extramural research ecosystem: changing policy, culture, and structure to promote workforce diversity

These committees will work on actions to create a more equitable ecosystem across biomedical science, including:

  • Increasing funding opportunities for projects that help to understand and address the impact of structural racism and discrimination on minority health and health disparities
  • Understanding contributors to racial disparities in NIH funding and updating NIH Databook with grantee demographics by race and ethnicity
  • Expanding current diversity and inclusion programs for senior investigators hired at NIH
  • Enhancing recruitment of candidates from underrepresented groups and improving retainment of staff from diverse backgrounds and life experiences
  • Gathering demographic data for both intramural and extramural staff across all job categories and ensuring transparency of that data; and
  • Identifying and correcting any NIH policies and practices that perpetuate structural racism.

In concluding their commentary, NIH stakeholders quoted Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people” and called on the industry to embrace the responsibility to be the good people who will no longer remain silent about structural racism. Their final comment: “Together, we must act – and we must act now.”

The commentary was published in Cell.