Words Matter, Actions Have Impact: Updating the NIH Mission Statement
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
I’ve previously written and spoken about how diverse perspectives are essential to innovation and scientific advancement.1 Scientists and experts with different backgrounds and lived experiences can offer diverse and creative solutions to solve complex problems. We’re taking steps to create a culture within the biomedical and behavioral research enterprise of inclusion, equity, and respect for every member of society. We are also working to strengthen our efforts to include populations in research that have not been historically included or equitably treated.
As part of our effort to ensure that all people are included in NIH research, we’re updating our mission statement to reflect better the spirit of the agency’s work to optimize health for all people. The proposed, new statement is as follows:
“To seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and to apply that knowledge to optimize health and prevent or reduce illness for all people.”
Recently, we asked a team of subject matter experts to form a subgroup of the Advisory Committee to the Director’s Working Group on Diversity to advise NIH on how we can support the inclusion of people with disabilities in the scientific workforce and in the research enterprise. One of the subgroup’s recommendations was to update the current NIH mission statement to remove “reducing disability.” The subgroup explained that this language could be interpreted as perpetuating ableist beliefs that people with disabilities are flawed and need to be “fixed.”
Disability is often viewed solely as a medical problem requiring a cure or correction. However, this view can be stigmatizing as it focuses only on a perceived flaw in the individual. It does not account for how people identify and view themselves. It also does not account for the ways that society can be unaccommodating for people with disabilities.2,3 It’s important that we recognize the varied, nuanced and complex lived experiences among people with disabilities, many of whom may also face additional barriers as members of racial, ethnic, sexual and gender minority groups, people with lower incomes, and people who live in rural communities that are medically underserved.
Some of you may recall that we updated our mission statement in 2013 to remove phrasing that implied disability was a burden, since many people do not find their disabilities to be burdensome. As we re-examine our mission statement again in 2023, I’m reminded that strengthening diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) is an ongoing process requiring our sustained engagement.
The input we’ve received has made it clear that words matter—language can perpetuate prejudices and implicit attitudes, which in turn can affect people’s behavior. We also acknowledge that it is time for the agency to review and consider how the words of our mission statement may affect the direction of our science.
In response, we are seeking the public’s input on the proposed, revised statement to ensure that it reflects the NIH mission as accurately as possible. The NIH mission should be inclusive of those who conduct research, those who participate in research, and those we serve—the American public. Anyone interested in providing feedback can send it to this submission website through Nov. 24, 2023.
We are grateful for the subgroup’s work and appreciate their time examining this issue in depth. I also want to recognize the helpful feedback that we’ve received from the disability community within NIH through the years, including recent listening sessions that helped guide the development of NIH’s DEIA Strategic Plan.
Going beyond the scientific workforce, both the Strategic Plan and the subgroup’s report recognize the importance of research on health disparities. People with disabilities often experience health conditions leading to poorer health and face discrimination, inequality and structural barriers that inhibit access to health care, resulting in poorer health outcomes. NIH recently designated people with disabilities as a population with health disparities to encourage research specific to the health issues and unmet health needs of the disability community. NIH also issued a funding opportunity calling for research applications that address the intersecting impact of disability, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status on healthcare access and health outcomes.
The subgroup provided additional recommendations that we’re in the process of reviewing. We know one of our key challenges is data gathering that would give us a better snapshot of the workforce and the research we support. According to the CDC, 1 in 4 adults in the United States have a disability. However, in 2022 only 1.3% of principal investigators on NIH research grant applications and awards self-reported a disability. In 2022, 8.6% of the NIH workforce reported having a disability; however, I recognize that this is likely not reflective of the true percentage. We know that some people do not want to self-disclose for numerous reasons, including the fear of discrimination.
We hope that, in part, changing the mission statement would be a step in the right direction of changing the culture at NIH and the larger biomedical and behavioral research enterprise. I know that our efforts have sometimes fallen short, but we will continually work to foster a culture of inclusive excellence where people with disabilities and all people feel like they truly belong and are embraced as an asset to the NIH mission.
 MA Bernard et al. The US National Institutes of Health approach to inclusive excellence. Nature Medicine DOI:10.1038/s41591-021-01532-1 (2021)
 DS Dunn & EE Andrews. Person-first and identity-first language: Developing psychologists’ cultural competence using disability language The American Psychologist DOI: 10.1037/a0038636 (2015)
 International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (2002) Towards a Common Language for Functioning, Disability and Health. World Health Organization https://cdn.who.int/media/docs/default-source/classification/icf/icfbeginnersguide.pdf
NIH designates people with disabilities as a population with health disparities, Sept. 26, 2023, NIH News Releases
Data on Researchers’ Self-Reported Disability Status, NIH Office Of Extramural Research
Total NIH Workforce Demographics for Fiscal Year 2022 Fourth Quarter, NIH Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion