Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Research ethics, global inequalities and KEMRI

Research ethics is typically focused on the relationship between researchers and research participants. When research takes place in developing countries, and the funding for the research (and many of the researchers) comes from more affluent nations of the world, there are the usual ethical concerns about exploitation: who will profit (more) from the research? Will the local community see anything of the benefits that might arise from the scientific activity? These are 'normal' ethical challenges when doing research in a starkly unequal world.

But the same tensions often arise among research team members themselves. Global health research in developing countries generally involve foreign and local researchers. The foreign researchers often enjoy the privilege of having been educated in more favorable circumstances: not just their tertiary education, but from primary school onward. They are often embedded in established scientific networks, connected to important individuals and institutions, and have a track record of successful grant writing and publications. Local investigators are often in a disadvantage in these important respects, and may find themselves in a relationship of unequal power with their foreign colleagues. They may, for example, not be fully involved in the initial design of a scientific protocol; a frequent complaint that I have heard is that foreign researchers and institutions come into the field with an already finalized protocol, leaving local investigators in the uncreative and disempowering position of mere implementers.

Last week, Nature published a report of a dispute between the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and some of its former Kenyan researchers which brings these common tensions into sharp relief. According to the researchers' complaints, they were passed over for promotion, training opportunities and grants in favor of their white foreign counterparts.  They also allege that some of their work was stolen from them and given to foreign colleagues, and that they were paid less than foreign colleagues despite having equivalent qualifications. KEMRI denies all these allegations, and the dispute is being heard by the Kenyan High Court.


Blogger John William said...

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4:31 AM  

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