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Can the NIHR achieve true racial equity?

Dr Esther Mukuka, NIHR Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, states that both policy and actions are crucial in improving diversity and inclusion in research, and reveals what NIHR is doing to break down structural barriers. Her blog marks Black History Month.

Millions of people have been championing and recognising the rich culture, accomplishments and achievements of black people in Britain during Black History Month. Whilst celebratory, the annual event is laced with the reminder that, while society has come a long way in recognising the contributions  African and Caribbean people make in the UK, we still have a long way to go.

This year is my first Black History Month as head of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at NIHR, and I’m faced with big questions about how we address the issues of race in health and social care research. The disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black people (who are four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people) has created an even greater sense of urgency.

Following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, which sparked worldwide Black Lives Matter protest marches, the NIHR made a bold stand in solidarity against racism and anti-blackness, acknowledging that as a research organisation we have more to do. We expressed our opposition to racism in all its forms and recognised the problem of racism and structural barriers to minority communities in the research system.

In his 2019 book How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi defines antiracism as “one [person or organisation] who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea”. 

Foundational Interventions

Since stating our position in 2020, the NIHR has started implementing the foundational interventions required to be truly anti-racist. We have for the first time collected comprehensive data to get a true picture of our diversity. This is key for helping us develop the interventions required to overturn inadvertent policies that may have kept those structural barriers in place. We recognise that to enhance our culture, we must first learn about the areas that need improvement and be bold in our approach to transparency.

We have made amendments to some of our prestigious schemes and awards, introducing targeted interventions to boost representation from minoritised groups. One such example is our research professorship scheme. This year, higher education institutions will have the ability to nominate up to three people to the programme provided at least one is from an ethnic minority background. The NIHR has also established a Race Equality Public Action Group (REPAG) focused on public partnership. REPAG is co-developing a Race Equality Framework, a self-assessment tool designed to help organisations improve racial equity in health and care research.  The framework is being developed with researchers, public involvement leads and members of the public with lived experience of the challenges we are trying to address and is currently being trialled by 16 varied organisations.

Bold targeted action

What you can expect from the NIHR in future is more bold targeted action that closes the gap in our thinking and our systems, processes and culture when it comes to anti-racism.

I will level with you, the NIHR will not arrive at racial equity on its own - we need you! We need the research community to shape our ambition, help us take corrective action and continually review our approach. This is why I am keen to engage with and harness the lived experience, expertise and energies of people across the NIHR.

Next month we will be publishing our baseline diversity data for the first time and some of our commitments for the future. It is important that we have a robust evidence base for this work. We are also launching a survey to get your views on the ambition and activities that we are proposing for the NIHR EDI strategy 2022-27.

It is my belief that in the fight against racism and discrimination, we must work together to ensure that racial justice and equity influence health and social care research. We need your allyship as we reimagine a more equitable approach.

Dr Esther Mukuka, NIHR Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion


Help the NIHR shape the vision and direction of it's new Equality, Diversity & Inclusion strategy for 2022-2027.   The survey takes 10 minutes and is anonymous.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.