Washington Update

NIH ACD Receives Updates from UNITE Co-chairs

By: Jacqueline Robinson-Hamm
Thursday, December 16, 2021
Last week at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) meeting, co-chairs from the UNITE initiative presented updates on progress and recommendations to end structural racism.

The U Committee, tasked with understanding stakeholder experiences, noted that preliminary analysis of more than 1,100 responses to the March 2021 Request for Information (RFI) on strengthening racial equity in the biomedical workforce is complete. Major themes were 1) there has been a lack of tangible action and specific actions are needed to change existing structures; 2) UNITE should be expanded to include all dimensions of diversity; and 3) there is no easy way to end structural racism and it will require a multifaceted approach across NIH policies, processes, practices, and cultural norms. FASEB’s response to the RFI echoed these themes. A final report of the RFI response results is expected in early 2022. Beyond the RFI, the U Committee highlighted listening sessions for various stakeholder groups are ongoing through early February 2022 as a forum for understanding the experiences of the biomedical research community.

Internal to NIH, the I Committee is tasked with improving NIH culture and structure. All NIH Institutes and Centers (I/Cs) are expected to develop a racial and ethnic equity plan by May 2022. This effort creates performance expectations for directors of all I/Cs to be accountable for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts by mandating each I/C make goals and focus areas, select actions to implement and make strides towards those goals, track progress, and report results regularly to NIH leadership.

A new data dashboard webpage has been developed and launched by the T Committee, charged with transparency and accountability of UNITE efforts. Currently, the data dashboard acts as a portal and directs visitors to existing content on various other NIH webpages. Over time, additional data will be built into the dashboard and the webpage will become dynamic to harmonize data from different sources rather than a static portal. 

Extramural policies, processes, and practices are the focus of the E Committee, which unveiled a variety of priority areas. Increasing opportunities for underrepresented groups is of interest; recommendations include strengthening diversity and mentoring language in funding opportunity announcements (FOAs), and incorporating the BRAIN initiative plan to enhance diverse perspectives into NIH research FOAs. To promote extramural institutional culture change there are plans to launch excellence in DEI grants that would fund both research and DEI efforts; these would help offset the “diversity tax.” Furthermore, a program to provide support for institutions to conduct objective climate surveys, as well as a prize for institutional innovation and advancement in DEI were suggested. To address concerns of implicit bias, the E Committee is engaging with NIH’s Center for Scientific Review and recommended decoupling the scientific aspects of grant proposals from the research environment and details about the individual investigator. The final recommendation is to build and sustain research capacity at minority-serving institutions.