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Francis Collins

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NIH director apologizes for ‘structural racism,’ pledges actions

Responding to concerns about discrimination against Black people, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins today issued an unusual public apology for what he called “structural racism in biomedical research” and pledged to address it with a sweeping set of actions.

NIH’s long-running efforts to improve diversity “have not been sufficient,” Collins wrote in the statement. “To those individuals in the biomedical research enterprise who have endured disadvantages due to structural racism, I am truly sorry.” The agency plans “new ways to support diversity, equity, and inclusion,” and will also correct policies within the agency “that may harm our workforce and our science,” he added.

Although some observers welcomed NIH’s plans, first described Friday at a meeting of Collins’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD), critics fault the agency for not more directly addressing funding disparities between Black and white scientists.

NIH’s move is, in part, a response to last year’s incidents of police brutality as well as the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Black people. An ACD working group on diversity released a report on Friday that calls for NIH to “acknowledge the prevalence of racism and anti-Blackness in the scientific workforce.” The group focused specifically on Black people and not groups such as Native Americans because of the country’s 300-year legacy of slavery and segregation, says co-chair Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University.

NIH has also faced long-standing concerns about racial bias in its funding patterns. A 2011 study known as the Ginther report found Black researchers’ funding rates are 10  percentage points lower than those of white researchers. The latest data show improvement: From 2003 to 2020, the number of basic R01 grants to Black investigators has risen from 52 to 166, and their success rate has doubled to 24%, compared with 31% for white investigators. Still, that is only “incremental improvement,” says Marie Bernard, NIH acting chief officer for scientific workforce diversity.

In a bid to move faster, NIH has launched an initiative called UNITE led by five internal committees. They have issued a long list of recommendations, including that NIH make public more data about the demographics of its staff and extramural grantees, appoint a diversity officer at each of its 27 institutes and centers, and improve outreach about NIH’s diversity training programs. NIH is seeking more suggestions for promoting racial equity through a request for comments.

The agency also plans to spend $60 million over 5 years from the Common Fund, a pot of money in the director’s office, for an initiative focused on health disparities and health equity. Some of the awards will be reserved for minority serving institutions.

The response to NIH’s announcements has been mixed. “Our group was very excited” by Collins’s public apology, says University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, chemical and biomedical engineer Lola Eniola-Adefeso, co-author of a recent commentary in Cell from 19 women biomedical engineers urging NIH to fund more Black scientists. “It’s the first time we’re seeing that kind of language from the NIH director and NIH.”

But many of the planned steps were presented “in a passive, noncommittal way,” Eniola-Adefeso says. And her group was disappointed that NIH has not agreed to fund Black scientists seeking R01s at the same rate as white scientists. Some observers have argued NIH could narrow the gap by funding Black scientists whose proposals fall just outside the peer-review score that is the cutoff for funding; the agency already does this for grants that meet an institute’s programmatic goals.

“That is the immediate action that is needed,” Eniola-Adefeso says. “We cannot wait for more studies. We will lose [investigators] from the pipeline which then propagates this vicious cycle.” NIH’s diversity working group noted that Supreme Court decisions make it difficult for the agency to make funding decisions based on race or ethnicity.