In research it is typical to publish, and state what the Principal Investigator requests, or perish. But what do you do when your Principal Investigator orders you to omit significant facts, or publish fraudulent information? Then threatens to fire you when you refuse? Faced with pleasing her supervisor, Dr. James Phillips, by committing fraud at his request, or losing her job; Yaa Bosumtwi, a Columbia University MPH graduate, stood firm on ethical grounds, and was fired by Columbia University’s Public Health Executives: Dean Linda Fried, Dr. John Santelli and Dr. James Phillips.
This is a story that resonates with all in academia. Dr. James Phillips, the Principal Investigator for the Bill and Melinda Gates MoTeCH project in Ghana, ordered Ms. Bosumtwi to omit references of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Columbia University and the Grameen Foundation’s significant ownership and controlling interests in the MoTeCH project. Dr. Phillips wanted Ms. Bosumtwi to make a false, misleading claim that Ghana Health Service (GHS) owned the MoTeCH project. Dr. Phillips was bold and relentless in his verbal and written directives to commit fraud. For example, in a March 25, 2010 email to Yaa Bosumtwi, Dr Phillips wrote, “It is good that you are starting with MoTeCH’s Objectives and Goals [in the research newsletter], but there is a great deal of emphasis on foreigners and foreign money. Koku [Dr. Awoonor-Williams the Regional Health Director] with nurses, etc., would emphasize, in a not too subtle way, that MoTeCH is GHS owned.” That email was one of Dr, Phillips’ numerous requests asking Ms. Bosumtwi to misrepresent, omit or skew the foreign ownership of the project to mislead Ghanaian policymakers and other stakeholders. It was a nightmare.
Yaa Bosumtwi, who was later described as a “skillful and careful employee” by Dean Fried and Dr. Santelli, immediately responded to Dr. Phillips and refused carry out his illegal and unethical requests to mislead and commit fraud. Finally, Dr Phillips directed her to minimize and conceal the foreign ownership details in the back of the research newsletter, and “play up” GHS ownership, because Columbia did not have authority to use the Bill and Melinda Gates name in publications. Ms. Bosumtwi, also the Communications Director of the MoTeCH project, immediately telephoned and emailed the Gates Foundation in Seattle--Washington, from Ghana, and in two days she obtained permission to publish and use the Gates image in text and pictures. Dr. Jemima Frimpong, the project's junior supervisor and an assistant professor at Columbia, then took over from Phillips and tried unsuccessfully to persuade Yaa Bosumtwi that her ethical code of professional conduct did not supersede Dr Phillips’ position as Principal Investigator or his illegal directives. Bosumtwi continued to stand her ground, and was fired by Columbia University in an email sent on March 29, 2010.
This is the synopsis of Yaa Bosumtwi’s multi-million dollar lawsuit against Columbia University and Dr. Phillips for fraud, blackmail and wrongfully terminating her because she refused to break laws in Ghana and the United States. Ms. Bosumtwi also discovered that Columbia was breaking labor laws in Ghana; basically running “Wal-Mart” research sweatshops by paying employees up to 90% less than American workers.
Since Yaa started the campaign on May 15, 2010 to expose Columbia’s illegal employment practices, she has received numerous calls of support, but more important she received calls from doctors and health professionals who gave her specific evidence of Dr Phillips’ research fraud over the past decade in Ghana.
There are two additional class action lawsuits pending against James Phillips for violating labor laws and administering experimental drugs without obtaining individual consent from poor and low-income women in Family Planning research—similar to Nigeria vs. Pfizer three years ago. It is unfortunate and sad that a brilliant doctor’s career was built on a foundation of fraud, and he will leave; but how do we overhaul a health system in Ghana with economically deprived communities that need funding for hospital equipment, beds and drugs, while millions in funding has been directed mainly towards longitudinal research studies that keep communities in a controlled, as opposed to improving, state. Priorities must change. This is a crime against humanity.
This video, as a teaching tool, can bring the important debate over ethics and research in Africa to classrooms and boardrooms in the United States and Europe, where most African research funding originates.
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