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?"