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DA: Statement by Marian Shinn, Democratic Alliance shadow minister of science and technology, welcoming the renewal of credibility for SA Astronomy (19/10/2010)

19th October 2010


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Calibre of scientists inspires international confidence
Desk is independent of National Research Foundation
A positive outcome following on the failed disciplinary hearing of Prof Phil Charles

The Democratic Alliance welcomes the announcement of the scientists to serve on the newly established Astronomy Desk at the Department of Science and Technology (DST). We are confident that the people serving on the desk will act in the best interests of astronomy, which is essential if South Africa is to win the bid to host the world's largest astronomy project, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The Desk was established in response to the international furore caused by the National Research Foundation's (NRF) failed attempt earlier this year to discipline and possibly dismiss Prof. Phil Charles, Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory.


He was apparently charged with insubordination and distributing confidential information when he questioned the NRF's unilateral decision concerning the siting of the Meerkat/SKA operational centre. The NRF and Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor have steadfastly refused to release details of the exact charges, despite Prof Charles' requesting that they do so.

A disciplinary hearing completely exonerated Prof Charles. No action was taken against the high-ranking NRF official who instigated the failed hearing, despite it causing doubt among the international astronomy community about South Africa's ability to efficiently manage multi-national science projects and jeopardising South Africa's SKA bid.


An important aspect of the Astronomy Desk is that it is independent of the NRF as it reports directly to the DST. This is in response to the input astronomers gave Prof. Belinda Bozzoli who compiled a report on the Prof. Charles issue for Minister Pandor.

The scientists appointed to the Desk - headed by respected physicist KwaZulu-Natal Prof Manfred Hellberg - are known for their integrity and independent-mindedness. One of these is Prof George Ellis, winner of the 2004 Templeton Prize, one of the world's leading theorists in cosmology and South Africa's most distinguished international astronomer. Another is University of Leiden professor George Miley, vice-president of the International Astronomical Union.

The establishment of the Astronomy Desk, although months behind schedule, will go a long way to re-establish the credibility of the management of astronomy in South Africa, and position us positively for our SKA bid.



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