Science enters Parliament

2010-08-11 20:00
Cape Town – Tensions in SA's astronomy institutions spilled over into Parliament on Wednesday, with a committee chair refusing to let an MP ask Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor about the disciplining of a top scientist.

DA MP Marion Shinn had raised concerns about a disciplinary hearing by the National Research Foundation (NRF) against Phil Charles, the director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

He was cleared of insubordination after he circulated information to his colleagues about the NRF's allegedly unilateral decision to appointment an administrator over the chief scientist.

"There has been a reluctance on side of the chair (Nqaba Ngcobo) to bring this issue into open," Shinn said.

"The reason for which, I have no idea.

International ramification

"My prime target was not Minister Pandor, it was the NRF. In March the chair of the committee agreed to discuss the hearing against Charles.

"I was concerned about international ramifications of the NRF's management of issues.

"Why was it necessary to discipline an international scientist because he challenged a management decision?"

But on Wednesday Ngcobo and his fellow ANC MPs on the science and technology committee refused to let Shinn pursue questions on the issue.

Ngcobo said Shinn was "new in Parliament" and probably "not aware of processes" that were followed.

The incident Shinn wanted to clear up what happened in January after Charles learned the NRF had decided to appoint an administrator to whom the SAAO's chief scientist would have to answer.

Board not consulted

Charles queried the matter and circulated information on it to his fellow astronomers, including the board of the South African Large Telescope.

Charles' main concern, Shinn said, was that the NRF had made decisions without consulting the astronomers and scientists involved.

"When he sought to question decisions and include fellow scientists, he was suspended for insubordination and leaking information," Shinn said.

Charles was later cleared of wrongdoing. Shinn said there had been huge concern in the international scientific community about the matter.

"International scientists were hugely concerned that our scientists were being inappropriately managed by bureaucrats. If this had happened internationally some bureaucratic heads would have rolled.


"Internationally it is the scientists who make decisions and bureaucrats implement those decisions."

Shinn said the concern was that if South Africa was going bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the most powerful radio telescope ever built, it would have to demonstrate that it could manage projects of this scale.

"The NRF wasn't cutting it (...) It needed better management and that was my point."

Pandor told the committee that in her "international engagements in the astronomy community" South Africa was "praised highly".

"Nobody has made reference to this case, which seems to enjoy such interest. I'm not sure why there is this constant attempt to keep this issue alive.

Putting the matter to rest

"I've tried to take every step to put the matter to rest."

She defended the NRF, saying it was doing "a very credible job".

"We are getting very good appointees. We are doing research of first rank.

"I'm puzzled about suggestions about the poor management of scientific facilities. I am not sure where it comes from.

"I really wish to ask members, can we put this matter to rest and allow us to develop a more appropriate architecture for astronomy sciences in this country?"
Read more on:    nrf  |  naledi pandor  |  science  |  politics

Read News24’s Comments Policy


Inside News24

/Dewani Trial

Red Bull Lionheart trail run - not for the fainthearted!

Entries are open, so what are you waiting for?


Where were you when you last felt alive?

Adventure holidays for your bucket list
Top 10 water sports to try before you die
6 impressive camping tips
LOL! The 8 stages of marathon running

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now! - shop online today

Save up to R1000 on Hisense smartphones!

View the large range of Hisense smartphones. Buy today and save up to R1000!

Deal of the week!

Save R1200 on the Samsung 48” smart full HD LED television now only R8799. Buy now!

Toys 4 for the price of 3

Buy 4 toys and get the cheapest FREE! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing prices – As seen on TV

Get mind blowing prices on 1000’s of products! Shop now.

Save 20% on Nivea beauty products!

Buy any two Nivea beauty products and save 20%. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25


There is an easy social flow and the need to blend in, yet you may not feel entirely comfortable. Something beneath the more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.