Posted on June 22, 2021

NIH Releases a Plan to Confront Structural Racism. Critics Say It’s Not Enough

Usha Lee McFarling, Stat News, June 10, 2021

Saying structural racism is a chronic problem throughout biomedical research and within their own walls, leaders of the National Institutes of Health Thursday unveiled a plan intended to eliminate a big gap in grants awarded to white and minority scientists and boost funding for research on health disparities.

The agency, the largest funder of biomedical research in the United States, said it would also expand a program to recruit, mentor, and retain researchers from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and appoint diversity and inclusion officers at each of its 27 institutes and centers.

The report says NIH leaders failed to acknowledge numerous firsthand accounts of racism in the workplace and the organization has failed to attract, retain, and promote scientists from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Less than 2% of NIH senior investigators are Black.

Published in the journal Cell, the plan acknowledges that structural racism is a problem throughout society and says “biomedical science is far from free of its stain.” Not only have people of color experienced health inequities for centuries, the report notes, but scientists of color have been stymied in their careers by not getting adequate funding and other support from NIH.

Their plan to dismantle racism, NIH Director Francis Collins and his colleagues wrote, was just the beginning of what they recognize is a “monumental task.”

Advocates working to address inequities in science said they were encouraged by the NIH plan but said it is unlikely to bring about major changes, and they called on the agency to put much more money into the initiative. “There is no doubt there is a sincere desire on the part of NIH leadership to address this question, but is this enough to really move the needle?” asked Freeman Hrabowski, a Black mathematician and president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.


The plan’s release comes after Collins in March apologized that the agency had not done enough to address racism.

The NIH doles out more than $40 billion in research dollars each year. The agency has been sharply criticized for entrenched disparities that see Black researchers funded at a rate barely half that of white researchers — 55%, a gap that has remained steady for the past decade.

The new plan includes a number of programs, many already underway, to close numerous racial, ethnic, and gender gaps at the institute. In a major focus on the “significant underfunding” of research on minority health and disparities, NIH leaders plan to spend $60 million on projects aimed at reducing health disparities and another $30 million to study and address the impact of structural racism and discrimination on minority health. This new funding is meant to help address the funding gap: One study suggested that topic choice — focusing on community-based research as opposed to mechanistic science — explains 20% of the racial funding disparity.

Many who have been on the front lines of work to increase diversity in science said that they were happy to see NIH addressing racism, but that NIH leaders needed to do far more work. {snip}

Hrabowski chaired a National Academies panel investigating how to improve diversity in STEM a decade ago, when just 2.1% of people with doctoral degrees in science were Black. Today, it is 2.3%. “We really have not made much progress,” he said. “The question we have to ask our society — and NIH — is what will it take to change the culture?”


Omolola Eniola-Adefeso, a Black professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan, has been sharply critical of funding disparities at NIH. In February, she and a large group of fellow women biomedical engineers wrote an editorial called “Fund Black scientists,” which cited evidence that Black scientists must spend twice as much time on grants in order to be funded at the same rate as white scientists and are less likely to receive tenure in part because they don’t receive as many large NIH grants such as R01s. {snip}

Asked to review the new plan for STAT, Eniola-Adefeso said she found it disappointing. “There is nothing in that plan that is transformational,” she said. Even though the plan pledged to stop “siloing” diversity issues, Eniola-Adefeso said its focus on addressing funding disparities by increasing support for health equity research was itself siloing. “Health care disparities are important, but Black P.I.s are also interested in robotics, gene therapy, and CRISPR,” she said. “In some ways, that’s pigeonholing us. That’s saying you should tell a young Black girl who wants to study nanotechnology to study health disparities instead.”

She said the NIH needed to repair the grant review process that has led to so little funding for Black scientists and, if they could not do that, simply fund more Black scientists, regardless of what topics they study. {snip}