It’s tempting to define “good health” more by what it isn’t than what it is. But health is more than not being sick, as former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders once said. It encompasses everything surrounding us that contributes to who we are: Our jobs, our neighborhoods, our education, our health care. Just as a tree in a sheltered forest will grow differently than one standing alone in a windswept field, a person’s environment can be hugely consequential in their overall health.
Research has repeatedly shown the tremendous impact of systemic and structural racism on historically marginalized communities. On March 1, 2021, former National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Dr. Francis Collins publicly committed to stand against structural racism in biomedical research by identifying, addressing, and correcting NIH policies and practices that may have helped to perpetuate structural racism. “The time for upholding our values and taking an active stance against racism, in all its insidious forms, is long overdue,” he said. Since his announcement, NIH has been putting diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) front and center, layering these principles into everything the agency does—from the research it conducts, to the workforce it employs, and to the scientific community it works with across the nation.
In 2021, NIH launched UNITE, an anti-racism initiative to identify and eliminate barriers to the representation and inclusion of historically marginalized groups. UNITE consists of five committees staffed by more than 80 NIH staff volunteers from all 27 NIH institutes, as well as the NIH Office of the Director. With an ambitious mission to promote equity, generate bold ideas, and catalyze new actions, UNITE acts as a think tank for NIH—identifying opportunities, making recommendations, and developing and implementing strategies to spur change at scale. ICF helped inform key conversations through foundational research and communications, which led to direct impacts across NIH. For instance, UNITE facilitated funding to examine the impact of structural racism on minority health and research health disparities. UNITE also hosted 14 external listening sessions with more than 1,300 participants to learn and gather information, which is being translated into action.
In March 2023, ICF’s work with NIH’s equity initiative expanded to include helping implement NIH’s Strategic Plan for DEIA, the result of a presidential executive order to cultivate a workforce that draws from the full diversity of the nation. The plan is an ambitious roadmap that seeks to do nothing less than inspire a cultural change within NIH, which employs roughly 20,000 people. Operationally, the five-year plan will develop policies and processes that ensure DEIA is a central component of all biomedical and behavioral research. The plan will focus on communicating those values clearly and consistently.
The plan also seeks to make all NIH employees feel welcome and valued. Moreover, the plan will ensure that NIH is creating a scientific environment that engages and benefits from a full range of talent—celebrating “inclusive excellence” throughout the agency.
Finally, NIH’s Strategic Plan for DEIA will be woven into the critical research it conducts. By intentionally including populations that have historically been excluded or treated inequitably due to structural or systemic racism, the plan will turn the words and intentions into measurable actions.
ICF is honored to assist NIH in implementing its plan. One of our foundational principles is equity-centered design thinking—the practice of purposefully involving historically marginalized communities throughout program development. As NIH continues this journey of enhancing its culture around issues of diversity and equity, we look forward to supporting them every step of the way. This work will serve as a guide to government agencies and other sectors seeking to implement their own DEIA plans and drive culture change.
NIH’s fundamental mission is pursuing research that leads to better health outcomes. By putting the principles of DEIA at the forefront, the agency’s essential work promises to benefit everyone across our nation. That’s what good health is all about.