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South African astronomer reinstated amid recriminations

Royal Society of South Africa calls for inquiry into Phil Charles's suspension.

This artist's impression shows the 80 dishes of the MeerKAT radio telescope. Credit: Jeroen de Boer

South Africa's main funding agency has come under fire for its handling of a disciplinary affair that saw a leading astronomer suspended from his post for more than a month.

Phil Charles, director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Cape Town was reinstated on 12 March after a hearing cleared him of any wrongdoing. The National Research Foundation (NRF) had removed Phil Charles from his post on 25 January, citing the "leaking of confidential NRF documents".

The NRF, however, has not revealed the precise nature of its charges, and Charles himself — an employee of the NRF — has been instructed not to discuss the matter. But he has called on the agency to publish the accusations it made against him. "To just state that I am not guilty without that information leaves huge question marks," he told Nature.

"The action taken against Charles has disturbed the international scientific community and placed a grave question mark against South Africa's international scientific reputation," says John Skinner, president of the Royal Society of South Africa. Skinner has called for "an open and public inquiry into this damaging incident and the implementation of mechanisms to prevent anything similar occurring in the future".

Embarrassing e-mail

Last month, Nature reported that the suspension was linked to claims that Charles had shared details with academic colleagues about where the operations centre for South Africa's new MeerKAT radio telescope might be based (see 'Top astronomer suspended after leak allegation'). MeerKAT is a prototype for a powerful radio telescope called the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which both South Africa and Australia are bidding to host. The location of MeerKAT's operations centre is crucial, because the site must be large enough to allow the centre to expand to incorporate SKA facilities. The two sites under consideration are at the headquarters of the SAAO in the Cape Town suburb of Observatory, and a nearby site at Ysterplaat, used as an air base by the South African Air Force.

The action taken against Charles has disturbed the international scientific community and placed a grave question mark against South Africa's international scientific reputation. John Skinner , Royal Society of South Africa

But in a statement on 9 February, the NRF said that the suspension had "no bearing on the South African SKA Project or the placement of the MeerKAT operational centre". On 24 February, the NRF's president and chief executive, Albert van Jaarsveld, confirmed in an e-mail to Nature that documents relating to the siting of the MeerKAT control centre were not an issue in the suspension. And Bernard Fanaroff, director of the SKA project, has asked Nature to retract its news story on the grounds that there was no link between the operations centre and the suspension.

Michael Feast, a former director of the SAAO who represented the local astronomy community as an independent observer at the hearing, disagrees. He says that evidence presented at the hearing shows that Charles's suspension was related to an e-mail sent by the NRF's vice-president of facilities, Gatsha Mazithulela, to Charles in December 2009. The e-mail said that the Ysterplaat site for MeerKAT's control centre had been approved and the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, had been asked to announce the decision. That announcement has not yet been made.

The e-mail also contained details relating to the restructuring of the country's national research facilities, including changes related to management responsibilities at the SAAO.

Charles forwarded this e-mail to senior members of the local astronomical community and to the chairman of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) board, Ted Williams of Rutgers University, New Jersey. Williams was subsequently a witness at Charles's hearing.

Feast argues that far from acting irresponsibly, it was entirely appropriate for Charles to alert his colleagues, as they had not been consulted about the decision. "It was clear that immediate action was necessary in order to avoid embarrassment to the minister if she made an announcement which might then be questioned by members of the scientific community."

No consultation

Feast is also critical of the NRF's statement after Charles's exoneration. Although the agency accepted the verdict, it said in a statement: "The NRF believes that the issues that gave rise to these proceedings may still exist and that they still require be dealt with [sic]."

This "suggests that the 'remaining issues' must lie with Charles", says Feast. "This latter insinuation is totally unjustified and calls for correction — the issues that remain to be resolved relate to the operation of the NRF executive, including its attempt to force through changes without proper consultation of the community that it is supposed to serve."

Fanaroff has declined to comment on Charles's reinstatement, or on whether his suspension was related to the siting of the MeerKAT centre. The NRF has not commented on Feast's accusation that the foundation did not properly consult the astronomy community. But NRF spokesman Patrick Thompson told Nature today that "the circulated documents contained many issues, including the site of the MeerKAT control centre. The charges, however, amongst others relate to the unauthorized circulation of documents and not about the merits of the site decision."

Local astronomers are now concerned that the affair may leave the international astronomical community with a bad impression of the country's science management that could damage South Africa's chances of winning its bid to host the SKA. A decision on SKA's eventual location is expected by the end of 2012.

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Cherry, M. South African astronomer reinstated amid recriminations. Nature (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2010.131

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