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Appeals court dismisses charges of institutional racism at U.K.-Kenyan research partnership

An appeals court in Kenya has dismissed charges of institutional racism at a U.K.-Kenyan research partnership. The Court of Appeal in Nairobi overturned a 2014 verdict by a lower court that found that six Kenyan academics working for the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)–Wellcome Trust Research Programme, had faced “systemic discrimination” in their careers. The scientists haven’t proved their claims, according to the appeals court, which also struck down 5 million Kenyan shilling (about $50,000 at the current exchange rate) in compensation that the lower court had awarded to each of the plaintiffs.

The verdict was handed down on 8 February but has not been widely reported.

The research program is a partnership between KEMRI in Nairobi, the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and the Wellcome Trust, a U.K. charity, which provides the bulk of the funding. Headquartered in Kilifi, on Kenya’s coast, it now has more than 100 scientists and more than 700 support staff.

The six plaintiffs filed suit in 2011, alleging that African workers in the partnership were paid less, received fewer grants, and were less often appointed at senior scientific positions than their white, European counterparts. Their lawsuit described the situation as “modern-day slavery.” KEMRI emphatically denied the allegations, but a judge sided with the six in 2014. “The systemic discrimination and violation of the fundamental rights has had significant detrimental effect on the researchers,” the judge said. “They have not only lost a chance to renew their employment contracts and connected scholarships to complete their studies, but have lost significant research outcomes as a result of the discriminative practices.”

Now, the appeals court says the judge “erred and misdirected himself” by not considering the facts and documents put forward by KEMRI, which it says, “resulted in patent misjustice.” About the plaintiffs’ claims of racism, the court added: “We are not persuaded by the arguments in submissions made on their behalf, which stand out more for their markedly intemperate tone and colorful phraseology than for the accuracy.” The compensations awarded in 2014 were “baffling,” according to the new ruling. (It’s not clear why it took the Court of Appeal more than 4 years to rule on the case.)

Samson Gwer, one of the plaintiffs, calls the judgment “weird and fundamentally flawed.” But, he says, “This ruling did not in any way negate the fact that we had won in the first round and demonstrated the ills of the relationship that KEMRI had with the Wellcome Trust and other global entities. … The differences in outcomes on the basis of racial differences are stark and this cannot be wished away.”

KEMRI did not respond to requests for comment, but KEMRI Director General Yeri Kombe welcomed the verdict in a comment published by The Daily Nation, a Kenyan newspaper. “We have since learnt valuable lessons and we have continued to strengthen our administrative systems to ensure that we deliver our core mandates in search of better health for humanity,” he was quoted as saying.

While this may not be a legal problem that is resolvable by a court, it is a continuing moral problem that faces all joint development projects between high-income country institutions and partners in Africa.

Carel IJsselmuiden, Council on Health Research for Development

“Wellcome was notified of the Kenyan Court of Appeal judgment by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), [which] is the party involved in this case,” a spokesperson for the Wellcome Trust wrote in a statement sent to Science. “We note the outcome and respect the judgment made by the Court of Appeal.” “We fully respect the judgment and authority of the courts in Kenya,” a spokesperson for the University of Oxford adds.

But, Gwer says, “The partnership and other global institutions are hell-bent on maintaining the status quo even if it is an unfair state of affairs.” “Many scientists lack insight on the lopsided relationships they are in with northern organizations,” he adds. “They are content with minimal professional acknowledgment and reward.”

Although the three organizations may feel vindicated by the judgment, it does not solve a key problem of this type of international collaboration, says Carel IJsselmuiden, executive director of the Council on Health Research for Development in Geneva, Switzerland. The situation in which a team working on the same or similar health problems has two or more funders or employers, and as a result has greatly different remuneration and career advancement opportunities, is inherently unfair and problematic, he says. “While this may not be a legal problem that is resolvable by a court, it is a continuing moral problem that faces all joint development projects between high-income country institutions and partners in Africa,” IJsselmuiden says.

All six researchers have left KEMRI; Gwer is now executive director at Afya Research Africa, a Nairobi-based organization that promotes sustainable health care solutions in Kenya. He is one of only two plaintiffs who have completed their Ph.D.s.