By: Gary H. Gibbons, M.D., Director, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
As the first African-American NHLBI Director, I’m occasionally asked about my career trajectory and if there were times I ever felt excluded or unwelcome because of my race. I suppose my gray beard is an obvious giveaway that the arc of my life journey corresponds to a period of American history in which the civil rights movement brought forward significant reforms to reduce race-based discrimination in housing, employment, and education.
My earliest memory of that period was as a third-grader in the first group of African American students who were bussed to integrate an all-white school in Philadelphia. I am grateful that I did not experience the horrific protests that necessitated police escorts for other African American schoolchildren. Yet I was keenly aware of the striking contrast between Black and white life. I left behind an all-Black school with its dark, dingy, coal-powered building for a bright, pristine facility. And I was among the tiny handful of “bus kids” that were placed in the gifted classes at the new school.
Over the years, I witnessed the growing number of “For Sale” signs near the school and the steady exodus of my white friends to the suburbs until my former school and its neighborhood eventually became all Black. I suppose it is open to debate whether this social experiment of my childhood represented progress toward a more inclusive America.
As I child, I could not anticipate that our beloved country, founded on the principles of our common humanity, would still be struggling today with the unfinished business of race, justice, equity and inclusion. Nor could I have known that African American students and junior scientists would still face barriers to full inclusion, and would be seeking my advice on how to navigate these barriers.
NIH Leadership in Ending Structural Racism
Last month, NIH took important steps to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion become ingrained in biomedical research through the launch of the UNITE initiative. This ambitious effort takes us far beyond simply “fixing” the racially biased NIH funding gap made plain in the 2011 Ginther report and moves us toward the goal of a scientific enterprise free of racism and harassment, where everyone feels respected, valued, and treated fairly.
NHLBI fully shares the goal of ending structural racism in our science and in the building of an inclusive community of excellence. For the NHLBI, UNITE is a welcome boost to many efforts already underway within our own workforce. And it’s a boost to our ongoing work to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in heart, lung, blood, and sleep science These values are fundamental components of our Strategic Vision.
NHLBI staff have been at the vanguard in leading NIH’s efforts to understand, address, and find interventions for the multidimensional challenges that confront us. Nowhere are our actions more visible than in our all-hands-on-deck approach to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, especially its disproportionate impact on communities of color in the United States. These disparities not only reflect the troubling fallout of structural racism; they also show how social determinants of health – such as where we live, work and play – influence who carries the greatest burden of disease.
Initiatives such as Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities and RADx Underserved Populations (RADx UP) are building on our long-standing commitment to health disparities research by engaging the communities hardest hit by COVID-19. In both initiatives, researchers are partnering with trusted local leaders to ensure that these communities are included in clinical trials of vaccines, that they receive accurate information about vaccine risks and benefits, and that they ultimately have access to the vaccines, as well as to COVID-19 testing.
For these efforts—or any research effort—to be successful, it is critical to have researchers who understand the community being engaged and ideally who are of that community. To fully understand and develop innovative approaches to address our Nation’s health problems, we must have an inclusive biomedical workforce that reflects America’s diversity. That is why the NHLBI continues to support efforts like our Programs to Increase Diversity Among Individuals Engaged in Health-Related Research (PRIDE), which prepares junior faculty from underrepresented backgrounds for successful research careers. The NHLBI also participates in trans-NIH efforts to boost inclusive excellence, such as Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) and the NIH Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) Program.
It’s not just the big, bold initiatives that can have a major impact. Change can come in the form of a simple gesture of inclusion — an invitation or a willingness to welcome a new perspective, an embrace of belonging that can resonate far into the future.
The NIH UNITE initiative seeks to address the structural racism that shrinks the talent pool of the biomedical workforce and drives health inequities. UNITE embodies a collective vision for biomedicine that creates a culture of inclusive excellence in which each of us feels valued and shares a sense of belonging as we work to fulfill the NIH mission. For those of you who have ideas on how NIH can accomplish this, there is still time to provide input to the RFI, “Inviting Comments and Suggestions to Advance and Strengthen Racial Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Biomedical Research Workforce and Advance Health Disparities and Health Equity Research.”
Our collective participation in UNITE provides an opportunity for science and scientists to contribute to our nation’s foundational vision of forming a more perfect union based on our common humanity. It is up to us to seize this moment and ensure that no future generation has to ask us why we were bystanders to injustice during this pivotal moment of national reckoning. We welcome your contribution to UNITE, big or small.