The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) has offered to assist suspended water researcher Dr Anthony Turton should he be summoned to a disciplinary hearing.
”It’s an important precedent-setting case and we would love to be involved in it,” FXI executive director Jane Duncan said on Wednesday.
Turton was suspended by his employer, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), last week after it had ordered him not to deliver a hard-hitting presentation on South Africa’s water crisis at a CSIR conference in Pretoria.
His presentation included a plan to boost the number of scientists in the country and a new funding model for research.
The CSIR said some statements in the paper ”could not be sufficiently substantiated”.
It said it had launched an investigation after he ”elected to engage with the media on the matter of the withdrawal of his presentation … in contravention of organisational policy”.
Duncan said the FXI was not only an advocacy organisation, but also a law clinic, with an in-house attorney prepared to attend hearings that related to the constitutional right to freedom of speech.
She said the FXI had offered Turton the services of this attorney as an expert witness in any disciplinary hearing.
The FXI would present case law to show employees had a right to criticise their employer in the workplace.
Duncan said freedom of research and academic freedom were intimately linked to freedom of speech.
Because academic freedom had, to her knowledge, not come under scrutiny in South Africa’s courts since 1994, they would probably have to draw on international case law.
She said the FXI was currently dealing with a number of cases where employees were being disciplined for speaking out against their employers.
Turton told the South African Press Association (Sapa) earlier on Wednesday he had extended an ”olive branch” to the CSIR.
”I have no anger in my heart, I have no belligerence,” he said.
”I have no interest in pursuing this to a higher level; I just want to continue doing my work as a scientist.”
Turton said he had obtained legal advice that he had an extremely strong case for claiming damages, but he had no desire to go to court.
He had sent the CSIR an email on Tuesday night, saying the body had attacked his credibility as a scientist through its comments on the contents of his paper.
”I told the CSIR that if this is the foundation of your charge, the technical contents of the paper, then there is no charge against me,” he said.
He had suggested they move back to a ”normalised situation” as quickly as possible, as the controversy was causing enormous harm to the organisation.
”I think it’s a reasonable [suggestion],” he said. ”I’m not trying to escalate the thing, because it’s in nobody’s interest to escalate. I don’t like being in the limelight.”
Turton said was not correct that he leaked his paper to the media in advance of the conference.
He had intended the paper to be a non-controversial consensus position, and for that reason had circulated it ahead of time to a wide range of scientists, NGOs and government departments.
It was one of these NGOs, not himself, who sent it to the media.
He said he was in any case an authorised media spokesperson for the CSIR on water issues, and had even undergone a CSIR course on dealing with the media.
Turton said the controversy was a distraction from the real issue: the dwindling science budget in South Africa and the haemorrhaging of skills.
He was trying to put in place a programme that reversed this trend and set national strategic priorities. He said he got satisfaction from serving his country, and so did the other CSIR scientists he worked with.
”I still remain a humble scientist,” he said.
It was reported on Wednesday that civil society groups and NGOs had launched a petition calling for his immediate reinstatement.
CSIR spokesperson Christa van der Merwe said the organisation would not issue additional statements or comments at this stage, beyond the statement it put out last week confirming Turton’s suspension. — Sapa