February 10, 2023

The Role of Diversity in Science and NIH’s Recent Efforts to Create a Culture of Inclusion

Improving diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) across the research enterprise has become a topic of increasing importance and is a top priority of the federal government and research stakeholders. During the November 2022 Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) Policy Advisory Council meeting, Marie Bernard, MD, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity (COSWD) addressed Council members about diversity’s impact on science, the NIH-Wide Strategic Plan for DEIA, COSWD’s recent efforts, and the NIH UNITE Initiative.

Diversity’s Impact on Science
Dr. Bernard began by discussing how incorporating diverse perspectives in research teams leads to stronger research, citing research articles that helped convey this point:

Recognizing the benefit of diversity in science, Dr. Bernard spoke about moving toward a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion and how the NIH is contributing to this culture. Central to the NIH’s approach are coming at the issue in multiple ways and intervening at both the individual level and the institutional level. (For more information about the NIH’s approach, view an editorial piece from Drs. Bernard, Johnson, Hopkins-Laboy,and Tabak in Nature Medicine, “The U.S. National Institutes of Health approach to inclusive excellence.”)

Dr. Bernard also referenced a Nature Communications article she wrote with Drs. Ten Hagen, Wolinetz, and Clayton about addressing gender discrimination and fostering inclusive excellence. The piece touches on the inclusion of women in science, pay, the combined challenges of being a woman and a woman of color, harassment, discrimination, and implicit bias. The piece also put forth a multifaceted framework developed by the NIH to advance inclusive evidence intramurally and extramurally. The framework focuses on the core areas of Research Interventions/Best Practices, Enhanced Flexibility Options, Culture of Inclusion, Action-Oriented Accountability, and Demonstrable Leadership Support.

Finally, given the negative disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, who bore a greater burden of caregiving and household responsibilities, Dr. Bernard reviewed recent NIH actions to try to help those affected. These actions included making sure childcare costs were covered, providing F and K Award extensions, providing extensions for early investigator awards, and continuing to evaluate data and consider NIH policies.

Strategic Planning Efforts
The NIH DEIA Strategic Plan addresses both a congressional mandate requiring NIH to include short- and long-term goals to address racial, ethnic, and gender disparities at NIH and to identify and address barriers in access to NIH funding as well as a June 2021 Executive Order on DEIA in the Federal Workforce. The Strategic Plan brings together a wide range of NIH’s strategic plans (including the Trans-NIH Strategic Plan for Women’s Health) under one umbrella. The objectives of the DEIA Strategic Plan are to grow and sustain DEIA through structural and cultural change, implement organizational practices to center and prioritize DEIA in the workforce, and advance DEIA through research.

In addition to the DEIA Strategic Plan, the NIH COSWD Strategic Plan for 2022-2026 outlined a vision to enable NIH and NIH-funded institutions to benefit from the nation’s full range of talent and foster creativity and innovation in science. The Strategic Plan seeks to achieve this goal by:

Examples of efforts coming out of the COSWD Strategic Plan include the 21st Century Scholars Program, a scientific workforce diversity seminar, and catalyzing recognition of DEIA mentoring through Notices of Special Interest to Recognize Excellence in DEIA (NOT-OD-23-002).

UNITE Initiative
Finally, Dr. Bernard spent time reviewing NIH’s UNITE initiative. UNITE acts as a think tank that “identifies and addresses any structural racism that may exist within the NIH and throughout the biomedical and behavioral workforce.” Its three primary domains are health disparities and minority health research, the internal NIH workforce, and the external biomedical and behavioral research workforce.

Dr. Bernard pointed to the Community Partnerships to Advance Science for Society (ComPASS) Program as an example of the UNITE initiative’s efforts. The goals of ComPASS are to catalyze, deploy, and evaluate community-led health equity structural interventions that leverage partnerships across multiple sectors to reduce health disparities and develop new health equity research models for community-led, multisectoral structure intervention research across NIH and other federal agencies.

For more information about the NIH and its efforts surrounding DEIA, visit the following resources: