Sanef calls for lifting of Turton's suspension

The suspension of water researcher Anthony Turton must be lifted immediately, the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) said on Thursday.

“Sanef suspects that the [Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s—CSIR] action against Turton was motivated by political considerations and an independent inquiry should establish the accuracy or otherwise of this suspicion,” Sanef said in a statement.

It called for the immediate publication by the CSIR of Turton’s paper, the lifting of his suspension and his reinstatement at the institution.

This should be followed by an independent investigation into the CSIR’s conduct.

Turton was suspended last week after the CSIR ordered him not to deliver a hard-hitting presentation on South Africa’s water crisis at a 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 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”.

Sanef condemned the decision to withdraw his presentation “on the flimsiest of excuses”.

“A major complaint is that he discussed matters with the media, a remarkable accusation in a country with a Constitution dedicated to openness and transparency in the conduct of public affairs—and one scorned by the media.

“The conduct of the CSIR in acting as a censor and preventing the South African public from gaining access to vital information about water supplies is outrageous,” said Sanef.

The CSIR had “contradicted its role as a scientific institution ostensibly dedicated to the search for [and] the dissemination of factual information for the benefit of the public”.

Quoting from a report on academic freedom commissioned by the Council on Higher Education, Sanef said higher education institutions must “protect the freedom of expression of academics ... from undue sanction by their own institution’‘.

This applied with “equal force” to the CSIR and was supported by a Constitutional Court ruling that employees had the right to criticise their employers.

Meanwhile, Democratic Alliance spokesperson on environmental affairs and tourism Gareth Morgan called on Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena to investigate Turton’s suspension.

Morgan said Turton’s paper was “of crucial importance for the protection and rehabilitation of threatened water systems within South Africa”.

“While the full reasons for Dr Turton’s suspension remain sketchy, to the outsider it appears as if this is an attempt to gag Dr Turton,” said Morgan.

“Unless the CSIR can provide more reasons for Dr Turton’s suspension, this research institution’s credibility will plummet.”

The CSIR has in the past week repeatedly declined to comment on the matter but its CEO, Sibusiso Sibisi, is scheduled to address the media at 2pm on Thursday.—Sapa

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