Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Trust director investigated for bullying

Steve Gordon

The director of the Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Trust (MLW) has returned to his job after stepping aside from his post to allow for investigations into allegations of bullying.

Prof. Steven Gordon a respiratory health expert was suspended in April and was temporarily prevented from applying for Wellcome funding following an investigation into bullying complaints from three research staff, this according to a report on a top notch health publication.

Gordon, returned to his role on 1 October, 2021

Interviews and evidence seen by Nature, the findings of the investigation confirmed several of the complaints — including excessive fault-finding and public shaming.

MLW HR Manager Limbani Medi said Gordon declined to comment last week.

"My office is not responsible for communication but I have forwarded this to my superiors, will get back to you once feedback is shared with me, he sais, but never got back.

However, MLW's main funder London-based Wellcome Trust through the  Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM),  which provided US$34 million for the institute from 2018 to 2023 confirmed the investigations.

A spokesperson for LSTM said there had been a “robust investigation and disciplinary hearing” in response to grievances brought against Gordon by members of the programme’s staff. The investigation was carried out by an independent investigator with support from an external consultant.

LSTM also said that during his time away from his post as director, Gordon remained at MLW as a senior scientist and continue his research. It added that there would be a “culture review” that “aims to ensure that all within the MLW community feel respected and can thrive”.

A Wellcome spokesperson said they were aware of the complaints and that LSTM had kept the funder "fully informed as required by our bullying and harassment policy". The spokesperson added: "We have now received a report from LSTM that demonstrates progress has been made and we have agreed the director may resume his position."

Wellcome’s anti-bullying policy, updated in February this year, says the institution may withhold funding from grantees who bully or harass others. The policy says grantees who engage in such behaviour can be banned from applying for future grants, and that levies can be sanctioned for institutions that fail to disclose details of such misconduct.

MLW’s handling of the accusations against Gordon is said to have angered and upset several staff — a number of whom are now nervous about his return.

Meanwhile, Kamuzu University of Health Sciences' Malawi College of Medicine, which is the responsible institution for MLW under the law in Malawi, has complained that it was not notified at the time of the allegations and the subsequent investigation and disciplinary hearing.

“We should have been made aware of these issues and deliberated on and been part of the solution,” says Adamson Muula, professor of epidemiology and board-member of the academic board at COM.

“I think our relationship should be damaged now, and it will take time to heal,” he told Nature

In addition,  Gordon’s return is of concern to some of the staff members who contributed evidence in his investigation.

E-mails addressed to some of these witnesses from Gordon directly, which several people that Nature spoke to on condition of anonymity, claim is evidence of a breach of confidentiality.

In one of the e-mails, which was sent to more than 20 recipients, Gordon apologizes for the pain and hurt caused and says he takes full responsibility. He also writes: “I am writing collectively so that witnesses might know who each other are, and communicate if needed.” He urges those with “private concerns” to e-mail him about them directly.

Muula says these e-mails raised concerns among witnesses about the disciplinary investigation, and the decisions made as a result. “The whole situation is a text-book treatise of how not to do an investigation,” he says.

But a Wellcome spokesperson said the Trust is satisfied that whistleblowers had been sufficiently protected. They added: “We will review the conclusions of the forthcoming independent cultural review led by MLW based on feedback from staff and will take any further action necessary following it.”

The Gordon case comes after a staff workshop at the MLW in Malawi last year identified several weaknesses in the way the MLW programme is run. In a written report from the workshop, attendees describe an institution with high turnover, overworked staff and insufficient support. It quotes a “great divide” between European and African staff members.

The workshop heard that Malawian staff earn less than their international counterparts, and that the two groups are employed on different terms and conditions, with international staff having more pay and benefits, and different disciplinary processes.

The workshop report, which summarises attendees' views, also says that the MLW programme is perceived by its stakeholders in Malawi as a “foreign institution”, and that it has not done well to shake off this image, “largely because it is still dominated by senior expatriate personnel”. The report says this legacy threatens the programme’s sustainability, undermining its reputation and relationships in Malawi and elsewhere.