Published online 25 November 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1255

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South Africa suspends water scientist

Anthony Turton may be dismissed after speaking to journalists about a controversial presentation.

Anthony TurtonAnthony Turton has been suspended by the CSIR.CSIR

A South African water expert could face dismissal after criticizing his employer for failing to address a looming water crisis in the country.

Political scientist Anthony Turton, a fellow of the country's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), was suspended after telling journalists about the council objecting to a presentation he was meant to deliver last week.

The CSIR, which receives around 40% of its funding from government and carries out research at centres across South Africa, said that it barred Turton from delivering his keynote address at its conference in Pretoria on 18 November because it contained inappropriate images and made unproven claims. But it was Turton's decision to speak to the media despite "internal avenues" being available to him that led to his suspension, the council said.

Turton's presentation, which is still available on the CSIR website, criticizes South Africa's science system for failing to address key health threats relating to water-resource management. He writes that it is "bordering on the criminally negligent" that no high-confidence research has been done to evaluate the impact on human health of water toxins known as microcystins, despite South African water reserves containing some of the highest levels in the world.

Dangerous silence

Microcystins, cyclic peptides produced by cyanobacteria, are known to cause liver damage. At least one study has also suggested that ingesting them could cause colorectal cancer1.

"If we remain silent, I personally believe that in a society with such high levels of microcystins, we are being criminally negligent, and society will one day judge us for that," Turton told Nature News.

“I personally believe that we are being criminally negligent, and society will one day judge us for that.”

Anthony Turton
CSIR fellow

In his presentation, Turton also criticizes a 1985 change in the CSIR's funding model that made researchers more dependent on private sector funds. The move exposed the council to "being hijacked by private interests," he writes. The criticism was first voiced in 2006 by CSIR researchers Bob Scholes and Dave Walwyn in an article that appeared in the South African Journal of Science2.

"All I have done is to apply what was in Scholes' paper to what is happening around me," says Turton.

In addition, Turton warns that South Africa's fresh water reserves will not be sufficient to support the country's ambitious plans for economic growth, and that water shortages are likely to lead to violent outbreaks similar to the xenophobic attacks that shook the country earlier this year. It was the images of charred human bodies used to illustrate such violence that the CSIR says "could have offended sensitive members of the audience" at its conference. However, it has refused to specify which parts of his presentation could not be substantiated.

Sound science?

Turton says that his presentation is based on robust evidence. "My personal view is that this was driven by the political oversight people," he says.

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Christa van der Merwe, a spokeswoman for the council, says that Turton was not suspended for his views on the state of water in South Africa, or to silence him, but rather for bringing the council into disrepute.

The incident has fuelled concerns about academic freedom in South Africa. "While the precise reasons for withdrawing Turton's paper are not clear, it is difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that they were trying to shield the government and themselves from criticism," says Jane Duncan, director of the Freedom of Expression Institute in Johannesburg. "Turton is the latest academic to fall victim to the growing trend of internal censorship in our academic institutions."

Turton hopes that his suspension will not end in dismissal, but says that he already has another job offer. "At the moment, I'm hung out to dry and I accept that," he says. "If that is my fate, so be it. I've applied my integrity to the highest level, and I now stand judged by my peers." 

  • References

    1. Zhou, L., Yu, H. & Chen, K. Biomed. Environ. Sci. 15, 166–171 (2002).
    2. Walwyn, D. & Scholes, R. J. S. Afr. J. Sci. 102, 239–243 (2006).
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