Major Science Funder Wellcome Still "An Institutionally Racist Organisation"

Karan Kamble

Aug 15, 2022, 03:27 PM | Updated Aug 16, 2022, 11:52 AM IST

A representative image for laboratory-based science research
A representative image for laboratory-based science research
  • The UK-based science-funding giant has acknowledged continued racism within the organisation — two years after the initial admission.
  • "...overall Wellcome has failed to meet its own anti-racist commitments," an evaluation concluded.
  • “Wellcome is still an institutionally racist organisation,...”

    This is the admission made 9 August by Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of Wellcome, a global charitable foundation and the largest philanthropic donor in the United Kingdom (UK). The eminent charity works to improve public health by supporting scientific research and the study of medicine.

    Farrar’s acknowledgement comes on the back of about two years of supposed efforts by the charity. In June 2020, at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd, Wellcome’s all-white Executive Leadership Team said: “As a funder, an employer and a museum and library we have perpetuated racism.”

    Staff surveys within the organisation at the time revealed that black employees were less likely to be awarded Wellcome research grants in the UK than white applicants.

    The 2020 admission led to “specific and lasting commitments to tackling racism” on various fronts by the organisation — from personal to coaching and reverse mentoring, to recruitment and appointment processes.

    “We won’t achieve change overnight, nor will we get everything right, but our commitment as individuals and as an organisation is to change,...,” the leadership team said then.

    However, after many a night has passed, the picture emerging is that there continues to be much work to do, especially with greater urgency, as Farrar has written on the company blog.

    “As Director of Wellcome, I accept this. I apologise for the actions and inactions that have caused this, and for the pain and disappointment it has led to,” Wellcome CEO Director said.

    The evaluation of Wellcome’s work to become an anti-racist organisation was carried out by The Social Investment Consultancy (TSIC) and The Better Org, with advisory from Ngozi Cole, Lyn Cole Consultancy. Wellcome commissioned the work in August 2021 in their efforts to become an anti-racist organisation.

    TSIC wrote in their blog: “…our final assessment has found that though there have been some areas of progress since 2020, overall Wellcome has failed to meet its own anti-racist commitments and has remained an institutionally racist organisation.”

    Evidence of microaggressions and other racist behaviours experienced by staff and grant-holders has been documented in the report. Issues of informal discrimination and harassment were found to be more common than formal discrimination, with 40 per cent of staff not trusting Wellcome to handle it properly.

    The institutional racism is said to be linked to “cultural, structural and leadership deficits” across all levels.

    “Little in the report surprises me,” the Head of Data for Science and Health at Wellcome Trust, Tariq Khokhar, tweeted, adding that he is “proud to work” at Wellcome and — “I'm a pragmatic optimist - I'm already seeing the progress the organisation's making. Is it too slow? Yes. Lots more to do? Yep.”

    The 85-page assessment has recommended steps that Wellcome can take to rectify its racism problem. The actions recommended have been bracketed into three categories of cultural change, structural change, and leadership actions to be taken over the short, medium, and long term.

    Wellcome says it will introduce two measures next year to address inequity in research funding.

    • “...when applications are similar in merit, we favour those which add to the diversity of the pool of people we support.”

    • “A dedicated stream of funding available exclusively to researchers who are Black and people of colour,...”

    “We will recruit a Director of EDI and, eventually, our EDI team will move into it's (sic) own directorate that reports directly to @JeremyFarrar,” Wellcome’s Head of Research and Funding Equity, Diego Baptista, tweeted. (EDI is short for equity, diversity, and inclusion.)

    Wellcome’s honest admission — Farrar even linked to the evaluation report in full — drew plenty of praise on social media and elsewhere, beginning with the evaluation team.

    “We are pleased to see Wellcome Leadership’s acceptance of our report and its decision to accept several recommendations immediately, and applaud the organisation’s willingness to make the full report public and take accountability for taking restorative action in response to the report findings,” TSIC’s statement said, wishing “Wellcome well on this journey” of transformative change.

    “The British Neuroscience Association (BNA) welcomes the openness, committment (sic) to respond, and clear action plan put forward by Wellcome to work harder to counter racial inequity,” a statement by the UK-based organisation said.

    However, there was some resistance to the one-way praise street.

    Dr Deepti Gurdasani, clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist, tweeted: “I've seen praise showered onto Wellcome Trust for 'transparency'. But transparency is lacking in key areas. And they haven't even scratched the surface of their complicity in neocolonial science and racism.”

    She said in a tweet that if Wellcome was “serious about dealing with institutional racism- Jeremy Farrar must resign.” This is in connection with Wellcome Sanger Institute being accused in 2018 of unethical practice in dealing with DNA donated by hundreds of African people.

    “This is nothing but virtue signalling PR. You can't misuse samples from African communities without consent- and then say you're working to combat institutional racism. You are the arbiter of that racism. You need to leave,” Dr Gurdasani said in a Twitter thread.

    Alongside his work with Wellcome, Farrar has held a number of advisory roles for governments and international bodies such as the World Health Organization.

    The pandemic years saw evidence of racism documented in two other UK-based institutions — the oldest institute of global health in the world, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and the prestigious, over-a-century-old London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

    Wellcome Trust is among the major funders to both these institutions.

    Wellcome was established in 1936. It is named after pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome. The organisation is said to be currently tackling, among other areas, climate change, infectious disease, and mental health.

    Wellcome says it plans to spend £16 billion over the next 10 years to support new discoveries in science and health, and to help find solutions especially in those three major areas of health. Wellcome’s work is funded from an investment portfolio that stands at £38.2 billion.

    Wellcome's association with Indian biomedical research goes back 65 years when, in 1957, it made an award to Dr Selwyn Baker at the Christian Medical College in Vellore.

    In recent years, Wellcome's presence in India is more prominent for "The India Alliance" — an initiative between Wellcome and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India.

    The goal of the Alliance, launched in 2008, is "to develop excellence in Indian science and support researchers to solve important health problems for India." It does so by funding research in health and biomedical sciences in India.

    In 2019, the Government of India approved a new five-year phase of the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance, building on 10 years of work together (2008-09 to 2018-19).

    In this extended phase, the DBT stepped up its financial commitment to twice that of Wellcome, "with the total financial implication being INR 1092 crore."

    The India Alliance has awarded more than 450 fellowships to researchers in 115 institutions across India, in addition to team and research management awards on a smaller scale.

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