Inherent in the NINDS mission is that its goal of generating knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease should benefit all people. NIH has recently launched an agency-wide effort called the UNITE Initiative to end structural racism in biomedical research – in NIH itself and in the extramural research community – and to increase our efforts to provide solutions for the tragic health disparities in our country.
I welcome this important Initiative, and I echo Dr. Collins heartfelt apology: “To those individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism, I am truly sorry.”
As we launch this effort, NINDS’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the neuroscience community is twofold. First, as both an employer and funding agency, we have asked ourselves what we at NINDS can do to foster diversity and eliminate bias in those we hire and those we fund. As we continue to grapple with this issue, we must acknowledge that we simply haven’t done enough to eliminate the structural bias that our Black, Latino/a/x, Native American, Asian and other disadvantaged communities have endured. I can assure you that NINDS is committed to identifying and dismantling any policies and practices at our own Institute that may harm any in our workforce, and we are committed to working to improve health for those carrying a disproportionate burden of neurological illness. These steps are necessary to ensure a more effective scientific community to pursue the mysteries of the nervous system and treatments for neurological disorders. For more, please read NINDS Deputy Director Dr. Nina Schor’s post on The Schor Line.
Second, we must address the stark differences in neurological health outcomes—that have been evident for decades—related to where one lives, access to care, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. The drivers of these differences lead to unspeakable heartbreak in the disability and loss of life that they cause in our country’s underserved communities. The unchanging rate of preventable deaths and disability that continues year after year is devastating, but we must move beyond frustration toward research efforts to design and test real world solutions. NINDS is currently in the midst of strategic planning for an ambitious effort to test interventions that may attenuate, if not obliterate, some of the drivers that create these differences in health outcomes.
The breadth of these challenges and slow pace of progress is humbling, yet I am proud that NINDS staff have been engaged in creative programs for years, including outreach to young students and funding awards to individuals and institutions to create a more effective, diverse scientific community and to explore the root causes of health disparities. The foundation of these programs is the explicit recognition and acknowledgment that diversity and scientific excellence go hand in hand and that diverse viewpoints strengthen the science. But even with these efforts, we recognize that there is so much more to do. We are committed to ending all forms of racism within NINDS and through the NINDS-supported neuroscience research community. We are going to be even more intentional about ensuring that diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are at the forefront of our science and workplace climate, including as a prominent theme in our NINDS strategic plan(pdf, 1134 KB). After far too long spent examining the problem of health disparities, we accept that we are responsible, and accountable, for research that informs successful interventions in disadvantaged communities to enhance health and save lives from disorders of the brain and nervous system.
The launch of the UNITE Initiative is accompanied by eight bold actions from Dr. Francis Collins – these actions are centered around concrete steps that NIH will take to address structural racism that have created inequities in health outcomes, its own internal organization and the research and workforce that it supports. I also encourage everyone to respond to the Request for Information (RFI) that NIH is issuing on this topic; we will be carefully considering all the suggestions that we receive and integrating them into future programs and policies.
Change is never easy, and feeling discomfort is often a signal that change is necessary. The time for ending structural racism is long overdue, and we will not be able to create change alone. In re-affirming our commitment to diversity and health equity, my hope is that we will be able to fulfill the NINDS mission to its highest ideal – for all people.