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The Democratic Alliance (DA) calls on the National Research Foundation (NRF) to be open with South Africans, and particularly the scientific community, about the pending disciplinary hearing, and possible dismissal, next week of the Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory, Prof Phil Charles.
Prof Charles, who has spearheaded the rollout of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and is a key player in the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) bid, was suspended for supposedly discussing with Cape Town astronomers the siting of SKA's Cape Town operational centre.
Apparently this is deemed to be highly confidential information that the NRF believed had not been fully discussed internally and was not ready for public consumption.
The SAAO is a National Research Facility managed by the NRF that is an entity of the Department of Science and Technology.
In a conversation with me earlier today NRF CEO Dr Albert van Jaarsveld confirmed Prof Charles' suspension and felt that the charges against him were serious enough to warrant dismissal. He said Prof Charles' actions in discussing the siting of SKA's Cape Town centre with those outside the NRF's planning process was highly irregular and contravened the NRF's code of governance, protocol and procedures. He said the disciplinary action against Prof Charles had the approval of the NRF board and the Director General of the Department of Science and Technology, Dr Phil Mjwara.
Scientists I spoke to today are distressed that the NRF has taken such harsh actions against Prof Charles. He is widely respected internationally. There is anger in the scientific community that the NRF has become a paranoid and ‘secret' organisation that believes it can dictate decisions made without consultation with the scientists involved.
They believe Prof Charles is being punished because he declined to exclude the astronomical community from giving their input into decisions that might affect their livelihood and working facilities.
A letter outlining the NRF's steps against Prof Charles was sent to SAAO staff and partners in the astronomical projects on Tuesday. Signed by NRF vice president Dr Gatsha Mazithulela it states that the "leaking of internal documents or information, has, unfortunately, caused undue distress amongst our local and international partners". For a copy of the letter click here
My impression of Prof Charles from the one presentation he made last year to the parliamentary committee for science and technology is that he is passionate about South Africa's potential as a platform for astronomical science and was eternally optimistic about getting projects such as SALT and SKA off the ground despite bureaucratic obstacles. He has been energetic in getting and keeping international astronomers committed to working in South Africa.
I find it implausible that he would do anything that would jeopardise that vision and call on the NRF to operate openly to seek a diversity of opinions and insights in the true spirit of scientific endeavour.