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Linda Nordling outlines lessons from a legal battle involving a Kenya-UK medical research partnership.
In a court ruling that shook Kenya’s medical research community, the Kenyan Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) was last month ordered to pay 5 million Kenyan shillings (about US$60,000) to each of six former employees who claim their careers were held back by “institutional racism”.
They accused KEMRI of lower pay than their European colleagues and a lack of funding opportunities, while working for a UK-Kenya research partnership where the institution is involved.
The 18 July ruling by Kenya’s industrial court has been hailed as a long-awaited win by the so-called “KEMRI six”: Samson Gwer, Michael Mwaniki, Nahashon Thuo, John Wagai, Moses Ndiritu and Albert Komba.
Towards the end of 2011 they filed a petition against KEMRI, complaining that while being employed by the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KWTRP) based in Kilifi on the Kenyan coast, they were held back from career advancement while their UK colleagues rapidly rose through the ranks.
“But regardless of who ‘wins’, it is difficult to see how any of the parties could be termed ‘winners’.”
KEMRI contested all the charges in court. Nevertheless last month principal judge Mathews Nduma found the six had experienced “systemic discrimination” while working for the programme. He ordered KEMRI to pay up, as well as give the petitioners access to all research they performed while working for KWTRP.
Acts to follow
It seems unlikely that this is the end of the saga. KEMRI says it will appeal last month’s judgement. And the petitioners have said that they want to go after KEMRI’s UK partners, including the Wellcome Trust and the University of Oxford, in the English courts.
It is not for this column to speculate about what the outcome of this legal “battle” will be. But regardless of who ‘wins’, it is difficult to see how any of the parties could be termed ‘winners’.
For the KEMRI six any compensation received can’t undo the suffering they, according to Judge Mathews Nduma’s ruling, underwent “in terms of career development, contribution to scientific outcomes to the country and in terms of ability to get alternative employment and academic scholarships”. 
Meanwhile for KEMRI, whose reputation is on the line, as well as the Wellcome Trust and the University of Oxford, the case is a public relations nightmare. Not least as there are growing demands on rich research institutions that partner with developing countries to be sensitive to local needs and desires, and to ensure local scientists are not disadvantaged.
The irony is that recent accusations aside, KWTRP has done a lot of good work in building Kenya’s medical research capacity. There is likely to be some objections to the assertion above, particularly from those who support the KEMRI six, so let me present some numbers to back up my case.
“No doubt it’s a difficult balance to strike. And when the scales are upended, there might be a desire from funders and institutional partners to retract from such partnerships that might open them up to litigation.”
In the first 20 years after it was set up in 1989, the KWTRP says it trained 28 PhDs. However, since receiving a five-year, £8 million strategic award in 2008 from the Wellcome Trust to train African research leaders, the programme has upped the pace, graduating on average 5 PhDs a year.
According to Sam Kinyanjui, head of training and capacity building at KWTRP, there are currently 33 African PhD students receiving training through the programme, six of whom are expected to graduate before the end of 2014.
It has also produced leading scientists. This month Faith Osier, a Kenyan scientist to emerge through the KWTRP, won the prestigious Royal Society Pfizer Prize for African scientists for her work on malaria immunity in children.
The KWTRP also supports African master’s degree students and post-doctoral posts. It also works with local secondary schools to inspire young people to go into medical science, and offers recent graduates internships where they can learn research skills. Indeed, as North-South research partnerships go, the KWRTP is not by a long shot the most uneven around — even supporters of the KEMRI six have said so to me.
That doesn’t diminish the legal case brought by the KEMRI six. But it may explain why, when news of the court judgement broke last month, some Kenyan medical researchers rejoiced, while others — in particular those who have benefitted from KWTRP support and are enjoying the fruits of a successful research career — were very upset.
What’re the lessons?
So what, if anything, can we learn from the story so far? On the positive side, it should make institutions both in Africa and overseas think harder about the partnerships they enter into. An important question needs to be discussed upfront: Does the programme take cognisance of local sensitivities, including the lack of support and job opportunities that exists for local scientists outside the programme’s boundaries?
This is quite a nuanced question. At the moment, African PhD students are often older than their developed country peers when they graduate. They also often lack the strong publication record needed to compete on the international science stage. These differences are not unique to the North-South divide. But they become stark when young scientists from such different backgrounds are put to work side-by-side in a joint programme.
As the KEMRI case shows, such programmes need to be sensitive to the way this imbalance plays out. No doubt it’s a difficult balance to strike. And when the scales are upended, there might be a desire from funders and institutional partners to retract from such partnerships that might open them up to litigation. That, however, would be a real shame as it would only serve to restrict the already limited opportunities available for African researchers.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa,specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.