A time for change: NINDS’ commitment to diversity and eliminating racial bias

The events of the past few weeks, catalyzed by George Floyd’s death, have unveiled for many the multifaceted racism faced by the Black community for centuries. George Floyd is one of the latest in a long list of names of Black people that have been killed as a result of racism in this country. Some of those names we know, sadly, most we do not. These deaths are at one end of a continuum of racism that stretches from access to effective education, buying a house, getting a good score on a grant, getting a promotion, being heard and having opinions respected at meetings and things we say (microinsults or microaggressions) that disadvantage Black Americans because of their race. 

These events have caused me to reflect on my own behaviors and attitudes as well as the role of our organization. A grassroots movement within academic research marked June 10 as a day to dedicate time for those in the research enterprise to reflect on systemic racism and what we each as individuals and as an organization can do to make substantive changes. The mission of NINDS is to generate knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disorders, for all people. To that end, I supported individuals within NINDS to take time to address racial bias in our own house, address the consequences of racial bias on the science we fund, and come together to share ideas in a town hall meeting. I wanted to share the following reflections from that day with the community. Dr. Schor is also publishing her thoughts on this topic on the Schor Line blog.

What can we at NINDS do? We are an employer, a funding agency, and we support research that can decrease the burden of neurological disorders in Black Americans and other underserved populations.  

First, NINDS is an employer: a community of individuals unified around a common mission. We have started with an open dialogue on the issue of racism, bias, and diversity within our own workforce. NINDS is mission focused, and it’s the contributions of each individual working in teams that execute that mission. The diversity of our workforce is a strength. Each employee brings unique contributions that are enhanced by their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities. While that is easy to say, we need to listen thoughtfully, engage in honest discourse, take actions to ensure that all of our workforce feels valued, and make it clear when good intentions are corrupted by racial bias.  It is clear from the conversations of the past weeks that we have not yet achieved this goal. To that end, we will design new ways of operating, new methods of training, retention, recruitment, and other actions that can be taken to ensure equity is a reality and not a myth. This is crucial work that cannot be shouldered entirely by our Black colleagues – it has to be championed by everyone.

Second, NINDS is a funder of people. We fund people’s dreams to make a difference in the world through neuroscience. I consider neuroscience one of the highest of callings and most fulfilling of careers, yet when we look at the neuroscientists funded by NINDS, it is disappointing that a very small percentage are Black. We need to examine why that is and work harder to enable Black Americans to pursue and thrive in this noble mission. This takes the form of reaching out to young students at a time when they are exploring what they want to become and cultivating a passion for exploring the inner workings of the brain and nervous system. It takes the form of breaking down barriers that hinder trainees from transitioning to research careers. It takes the form of investigating and rooting out systemic biases in our funding process for faculty level awards. We need to assess and change why these inequities exist, ensure appropriate representation in our neuroscience community, and support our Black scientists at every career stage. 

Third, through better understanding of the nervous system, NINDS should channel that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disorders. The carnage of brain injury due to trauma, stroke, neurodegeneration, or the millions robbed of the ability to lead lives without terrible disability due to epilepsy or neurodevelopmental disorders is not equally distributed in society. The data are staring us in the face, and the greater burden that falls on Black America due to social determinants that drive health inequities is not fair. We cannot forget that behind each data point is a person who died or suffered. I encourage every scientist not to forget the human toll represented by the facts and statistics. As a funder whose resources are unequaled by any other neurological health institution in the world, our responsibility stretches globally. NINDS has a duty to support the research that can provide solutions to racial disparities in incidence, prevalence, and disability. By reaffirming our commitment to design solutions for health disparities, NINDS can make a tremendous positive impact on the health of Black people in our country.

Though humbled by the enormity of the challenges and frustrated by progress that seems incremental at times, I am proud of the work that NINDS staff have been engaged in for decades, especially that of Dr. Michelle Jones-London and her staff in the NINDS Office of Programs to Enhance Workforce Diversity.  NINDS has challenged the status quo with a variety of creative funding programs, and is always trying to learn from the data to do better. We have made progress in outreach to young students, in bringing trainees into our intramural research program, in funding awards to individuals and institutions to create a more effective, diverse science community, and in providing leadership to an up-and-coming Common Fund program to hire clusters of faculty into a science area that will improve diversity in academia. Our new strategic plan will also reflect our commitment to equity and inclusion as a priority. But I cannot stress enough that even with these efforts—especially now—there is so much more to do. As a government funding agency, we cannot do this work alone. We need to partner with scientific societies, institutions, departments, Black scientists, and mentors. The events of the last few weeks have brought to light that the entire biomedical research enterprise can and must improve. With this message, I commit to holding myself and our Institute accountable moving forward.

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