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NIH and Fogarty stand against structural racism in biomedical research

March / April 2021 | Volume 20 Number 2

Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass

Ending Structural Racism. nih.gov/ending-structural-racism. NIH logo.

I applaud NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins on the strong stance he is taking to eliminate structural racism at NIH and throughout the biomedical research community.

We at Fogarty join him in condemning racism and bigotry in all its forms and remain committed to our mission to work toward achieving equity for all the world’s people. While the NIH has long supported programs to improve the diversity of the scientific workforce, those efforts have not been sufficient to achieve racial equity across the biomedical research enterprise. We’re committed to identifying and dismantling any policies and practices that may harm our workforce and our science. To begin this critical work, NIH has launched a new program called UNITE.

UNITE has five components with the following specific aims:

  • U - Understanding stakeholder experiences through listening and learning
  • N - New research on health disparities, minority health and health equity
  • I - Improving the NIH culture and structure for equity, inclusion and excellence
  • T - Transparency, communication and accountability with our internal and external stakeholders
  • E - Extramural research ecosystem: changing policy, culture and structure to promote workforce diversity
Headshot of Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass.
Read recent opinion pieces from Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. Glass.

The UNITE initiative was established to identify and address structural racism within the NIH-supported and the greater scientific community. With representation from across NIH, UNITE aims to establish an equitable and civil culture within the biomedical research enterprise and reduce barriers to racial equity in the biomedical research workforce. To reach this goal, UNITE is facilitating research to identify opportunities, make recommendations, and develop and implement strategies to increase inclusivity and diversity in science. These efforts will bolster the NIH’s effort to continue to strive for diversity within the scientific workforce and racial equity on the NIH campus and within the extramural community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness of the deeply ingrained inequities, racist violence and bigotry that continue to exist in our society. This was brought home to me recently with the tragic shooting of Asian-Americans in Atlanta, the city where I live. It is painful to me that many of my longtime research colleagues of Asian descent are experiencing unpleasant acts of bigotry and discrimination. I am distressed that some of them and their families now feel unsafe and unwelcome in the country they have called home for decades, where they have worked tirelessly to make scientific contributions that improve health for all people.

The Atlanta violence spurred the White House to issue a statement condemning acts of discrimination, bullying, harassment and hate crimes directed toward Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins pointed out recently that the COVID-19 vaccines we have today were made possible by the rapid public disclosure by Chinese researchers of the novel coronavirus’s genetic sequence. Science continues to be a global effort, he added, and we are all in this together.

This is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what more we can do to address these continuing problems, to determine how we can contribute to meaningful solutions - individually and through our collective efforts - so that one day all people will live in a just and equitable world. We must channel our outrage, grief and frustration into positive change.

For us in the global health community, we are also considering how we can work together with our grantees and collaborators to decolonize and democratize global health research. Both remain complex and challenging barriers to health equity.

Identifying and dismantling racist components of a system that has been hundreds of years in the making is no easy task and this is just the beginning. I call on all in the Fogarty community to join us in our quest for peace, equality and social justice, here at home, as well as around the globe. The continuing issues of social justice, the importance of diversity, alongside the racism and police brutality that persist in our society have again come to the fore and been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted minorities and vulnerable groups far more than others.

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