When scientists become too ‘secretive’

Alex-Segbefia - Health-Minister

Alex-Segbefia – Health-Minister

The most regrettable thing about the controversy that has broken out over the Ebola vaccination  trial,  designated to take place in Ghana, is that it has demonstrated  the inability of some people in our scientific community to comprehend the thinking of  laymen.

These scientists think that  laymen are only entitled to watch them quietly, as they  carry out their “difficult”  and “complex” tasks meant  to “save mankind”.

Why should we question them when they are so “high-minded” that they think, not of themselves, but of the world community in general?

This approach is wrong, because scientists do not operate in a vacuum but in a community of living human beings, some of whom have responsibilities   that are different from those of scientists, but which are as crucial to the survival of mankind as the work of  scientists. To impugn the integrity of such people – politicians, journalists, teachers, farmers, students, and many others in civil society  – when they humbly seek answers from “knowledgeable” scientists, and dismiss them as  “ignorant”,  or indeed classify  their queries as “ a rant”  (that is how one lady scientist chose to  describe one of the pieces  I wrote on the Ebola vaccine) is to misunderstand what society is all  about.

Society is about balancing the interests of separate groups against those of others, so that a consensus of some kind can be reached about matters that concern everyone. Even if scientists were ALL agreed on every aspect of science, other interest groups would still  have the right to question them, for although the scientists undoubtedly  possess a technical expertise denied to the other interest groups, the work of scientists impinges on almost everyone, with the result that everybody must cultivate a healthy interest  in regulating  what the scientists do!  The scientists, if left to their own devices, could well  choose to work against humanity – from the highest of motives!

Far-fetched? Didn’t Nazi scientists  gas 6 million Jews to death?  What of “Angel of Death” Dr Josef Mengele (who  used concentration camp prisoners  for grotesque experiments)? Heard of  “Dr Death”  Wouter Basson (who eliminated some of  the opponents of apartheid in South Africa with   bio-chemical concoctions?)

These monsters were taught science by the same methods  as my abusive  lady scientist.  But they twisted their knowledge, and so, civil society must ensure that henceforth, no scientists  are allowed to do what they like with fellow human beings.

But even without those considerations, is it too much to ask scientists – no matter how advanced their knowledge – to employ common sense in their approach?

I mean, no scientist who lives in Africa could have failed to observe the sheer panic that struck through African societies when Ebola broke out in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in early 2014.  In the course of only  one year, the horrendous pestilence  slaughtered  no less than 11,000 people (and counting).

Its victims died a terrible death; the doctors and nurses who treated the victims often died themselves. Some struck fear into  their own patients, for they were required  to encase themselves in hideous  outfits that looked  as if  they were  designed to  frighten   the inhabitants of  Mars and other “deathly” alien  forms of life, in case interaction with them   became necessary.

Yet, knowing  this, scientists of the Ghana Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) blithely authorised  Ghanaian scientists, working for a foreign pharmaceutical company  to carry out  trials of an Ebola vaccine, without so much as a word to the Ghanaian public, to prepare their minds  for the trials.    

Now, it is not disputed that the Food and Drugs Authority  had the power,  under the statute that established it, to approve of the trials.  What is being wondered at  is the  failure of the FDA, and/or those who applied to it for  approval of the Ebola vaccine trial,  to provide any information whatsoever to the public regarding  the trials.

This is a media age, in which every responsible entity, whether publicly-owned or commercial  in nature, must take public relations seriously or be killed by —  the lack of it.  Elected Presidents and Prime Ministers, like  other powerful people (such  as Chief Executives),  employ highly-skilled  public relations personnel to convey their message to the public. They do this  even though they believe  that  they act generally  in the interest of the public.

They provide information to the public  because they do not want the public to misunderstand what they are trying to do.

Whether you are the World Health Organisation,  or the United Nations itself,  you cannot ignore the imperatives of the information age.  In such a world,  if you want to carry out trials meant to evolve a vaccine to combat as deadly a virus as the  Ebola virus, and you try, even if  metaphorically, to “ smuggle” the project into the country, you will ensure that  the first that is heard of it is through the news  broadcast by a local  radio station,  then you are asking for trouble This is because everyone  in Ghana who keeps his or her ears open, knows that science,  economics and similar complex subjects,  are not exactly the forte of our radio stations. On the contrary, their  diet is  political sensation: “he said this” (the more outrageous, the better!) and “he countered with that” (the more abusive the better!) .




That is how they exist.  And if you approve a trial for an anti-Ebola vaccine in such an  atmosphere and you know anything about psychology, you don’t wait for it to be leaked to a radio station before you come out with official versions.

If, when Parliamentarians hear  the story and complain, you call them “ignorant”; and when journalists point out that you’re being  secretive, you  insult them for “ranting”. Where are do you think you are headed?

Well let me tell you this: you have displayed  incompetence of the first order. In many other societies,  people caught being incompetent,  are  forced to resign. But the standards of  public behaviour in Ghana now  mean that those responsible  will, in all probability, be allowed  to remain in their posts.

But that would be awful, because  the importance of ensuring that high standards prevail is this: if  I appoint you to a responsible position, and you act incompetently in it, you automatically expose  me as incompetent, too!. For  if I were competent, I would have appointed you on the basis of  objectively-crafted criteria that would ensure that whoever I appointed would  act  competently in that particular  job .

Look at the consequences of the incompetence of the scientists:  the Minister of Health had to be hauled before Parliament, where he revealed that:

QUOTE “…  the second application received by the FDA was from Johnson and Johnson. Incidentally the Principal Investigator selected by the sponsors is no less a person than our own Professor Binka [Vice-Chancellor of the University of Health Sciences].He won a competitive bid to conduct the study at his research site, which is in the Volta Region, Hohoe, to be specific”. UNQUOTE

Did Alex Segbefia expect the public to be satisfied with this revelation? If he did, he ought to know that  there are  questions to be asked: How much  was the “open tender” won by Prof. Binka worth? Is the contract sum to be paid to his institution or to him?  Will he personally benefit from  whatever payment is made to the institution – if one is indeed made – by Johnson and Johnson? Do his terms of employment as Vice-Chancellor of a publicly-funded university in Ghana allow him to engage in research “by tender” for commercial companies? If so, why?  Will he use staff of his institution as investigators? If so, do their contracts  allow them to be used for such work?

These questions are extremely important because they open a Pandora ’s Box in which secrecy, conflicts of interest and neglect of ethics vie with personal gratification. They also raise the issue of whether a correct delineation has been made between [private] scientific research carried out by publicly-employed Ghanaians  and the work they do for their institutions.

It is a very fine line.

A debate has already begun between the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences and  the scientists caught up in the Ebola vaccine controversy.  The Minister of Health should use the opportunity to set up a committee to review  the issues and lay down regulations – in the form of  Amendments to the  FDA Act  — that would straighten out matters henceforth.

For indeed, in the 21st Century, to take anything for granted is to court disaster. Someone should in fact brief the Minister on the “Thalidomide Disaster” in the United Kingdom, circa 1962.   A brief account of it can be found at this url


That disaster is a needle  which can be used to prick the arrogance of scientists who regard an evaluation of their behaviour by the concerned public as  “a rant”!

Cameron Duodu

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