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January 12, 2022
UNITE Co-Chairs’ Corner
Celebrating UNITE Progress to Date: A Message from the UNITE Co-Chairs
Happy New Year! We are delighted to introduce a new monthly update, the UNITE Co-Chairs’ Corner, with this inaugural message highlighting UNITE’s progress since the NIH unveiled the initiative nearly one year ago. We hope this overview of UNITE’s accomplishments is helpful, and you share our pride in what UNITE has achieved in its first year.
It is particularly appropriate to focus on UNITE accomplishments as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches. The sentiments from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail puts the UNITE focus on racial and ethnic equity in perspective: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
UNITE has required us to step back and look objectively at all that the NIH does, with a goal of fostering racial and ethnic equity—an endeavor with a benefit to all in the biomedical ecosystem. UNITE was publicly launched on February 26, 2021 at a special meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) with a commitment from former NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins to address structural racism in the biomedical research enterprise.
With the launch, we committed to a Common Fund initiative for transformative health disparities research and staunch support for a National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) request for applications (RFA) on structural racism and discrimination and its impact on health. Through UNITE, we also pledged to identify and dismantle internal and external policies, structures, and procedures that perpetuate inequities in the scientific workforce and biomedical research.
The five UNITE committees, which had been working internally since October 2020, reenergized their efforts upon Dr. Collins’ announcement, recognizing that we had embarked on a marathon to bring about internal and external institutional culture change. We acknowledged early on that this was not a simple task, and our efforts may sometimes be slow to affect change. As a result, we committed to regularly reporting to the ACD, with those communications and updates serving as the marathon’s mile markers.
At the December 10, 2021 ACD meeting, a presentation on UNITE developments demonstrated how the initiative is fostering racial and ethnic equity. Below we describe UNITE’s primary focus areas and their accomplishments to date.
1. Health Disparities Research/Minority Health/Health Equity Research
- The NIH Common Fund awarded 11 grants to institutions that will conduct transformative health disparities research, committing up to $58 million over the next five years. The initial grant recipients are six high-resourced institutions and five minority serving institutions (MSIs). In fiscal year (FY) 2022, there will be an additional competition focusing on MSIs.
- NIMHD received a robust response, with the support of 25 NIH Institutes, Centers, and Offices (ICOs).
- We continue to enhance our understanding of NIH investments in health disparities research and consider new initiatives. The UNITE N Committee co-chairs will elaborate on this work in an upcoming edition of the UNITE Co-Chairs’ Corner.
2. NIH Internal Workforce
- We unveiled the Power of an Inclusive Workforce Recognition Project to demonstrate the full range of staff who advance the NIH mission.
- The NIH established a FY 2022 performance expectation in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) for all Institute and Center Directors to include a requirement for developing and implementing racial and ethnic equity plans for each Institute and Center.
- We established the NIH Anti-Racism Steering Committee (ARSC) to help guide internal policy considerations, staffed by more than 515 NIH volunteers.
- The NIH published the demographics of the Intramural Research Workforce by race/ethnicity, disability status, sex, and job category.
- The NIH expanded the FTE demographic data it publishes to include job category and supervisory status and selected pay plans, in addition to race/ethnicity and disability status of its workforce.
- The NIH modified internal policies to enable a clearer understanding of the opportunities for reporting discrimination for all protected categories.
- We unveiled internal communications to keep NIH staff informed of ICO-led and NIH-wide activities to end structural racism through DEIA efforts; to provide materials to help NIH staff foster equity in and beyond their ICOs; and to offer volunteer opportunities to staff and gather feedback on these efforts.
3. External Biomedical Research Workforce
- The NIH Common Fund released the initial Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) funding opportunity. One coordinating center and six institutions received FY 2021 cohort grants. Two additional rounds of competition will occur in FYs 2022 and 2023.
- The NIH-wide BRAIN initiative released a funding opportunity that, for the first time, called for Plans to Enhance Diverse Perspectives as part of the scoring criteria, a component now being replicated in other funding opportunity announcements.
- The NIH released data regarding the demographics of funded researchers by race, ethnicity, and disability status, adding to the pre-existing data by gender and career stage.
- The NIH clarified that external researchers can report problems with discrimination and harassment for all federally protected categories.
- Numerous other initiatives are under development. The UNITE E Committee co-chairs will elaborate on these in an upcoming edition of the UNITE Co-Chairs’ Corner.
One of our most vital initiatives spans UNITE's three focus areas: listening and learning from the biomedical research community. We are accomplishing this through 14 listening sessions with external stakeholders and a Request for Information that received more than 1,100 responses with input on how the NIH can advance DEIA. We are also committing ourselves to be transparent and accountable and communicate our progress as demonstrated by our new diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility data dashboard and the launch of this monthly update.
With this in mind, we wish to note a change in UNITE leadership. Co-chair Dr. Lawrence Tabak was named Acting Director of the NIH in December 2021, and while he will continue to be actively involved in UNITE, Dr. Tara Schwetz, Acting Principal Deputy Director of the NIH, has replaced him as one of three UNITE co-chairs. Having previously been a co-chair of the UNITE U Committee, Dr. Schwetz is well-versed in the origins and goals of the initiative.
We are also pleased to welcome Ms. Leia Butler as the UNITE Program Manager. Ms. Butler is responsible for the daily operations and all programming for UNITE and serves as a liaison among the UNITE committees. She joins us on detail from the NIH Office of Human Resources’ Workforce Relations Division, where she was a Supervisory Human Resources Specialist in the Employee and Labor Relations Branch. In addition, she served as a co-chair of the ARSC Recruitment Recommendation (Non-Scientific) Subcommittee. Ms. Butler replaces Ms. Victoria Rucker, MPA, who previously served in the role and is now the Director of the Office of Workforce Management and Programs within the NIH Office of the Director.
We are excited to have this new platform to share our progress in bringing equity to the biomedical research enterprise. In the coming months, the co-chairs of the five UNITE committees will author updates about their activities and recent milestones. Please sign up to be notified about future UNITE Co-Chairs’ Corner editions and remain updated on UNITE progress.
Authored by the UNITE Co-Chairs
This page last reviewed on January 13, 2022