Hearing causes rift in scientific community

Top South African astronomer Phil Charles has been cleared of all charges against him—but the fallout from his extraordinary disciplinary hearing continues.

The hearing, launched last month over Charles’s alleged disclosure of confidential decisions of the National Research Foundation, opened a rift between scientists and the foundation.

Charles, the suspended director of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), was a central figure in South Africa’s bid to host the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The controversy over the disciplinary process damaged South Africa’s standing in the international scientific community and raised fears that the country could lose the SKA bid.

This week retired SAAO director Mike Feast, chosen by South African astronomers to monitor the hearing, lashed out at the NRF in a letter to the press. The NRF refuses to disclose the charges against Charles. However, Feast said they were based on an email sent to Charles by NRF vice-president Gatsha Mazithulela, which Charles forwarded.

He said the email contained the information that the site for the Meerkat radio-astronomy project had been approved and that the minister had been asked to announce this.
“It also contained details of a restructuring of national facilities (including SAAO),” Feast said.

He said Charles recognised that these decisions had broad implications for national and international stakeholders. “Immediate action was necessary to avoid embarrassment to the minister if she made an announcement which might then be questioned by members of the scientific community,” he said. “Charles therefore sent this email to senior people at UCT and to the chairperson of the Salt (South African Large Telescope) board, Professor Ted Williams, at Rutgers University in the US.”

The hearing found Charles was within his rights to send the information to SAAO, its users and partners. Feast also criticised the NRF press release on Charles’s acquittal, which hinted that the matter was not concluded.

NRF spokesperson Patrick Thompson said in the release that the foundation’s executive was studying the contents of the (hearing’s) report “with a view to dealing with any issues requiring further attention”.

Thompson said the NRF initiated the Charles process to correct perceived management and governance transgressions at the SAAO.
“The NRF believes that the issues that gave rise to these proceedings may still exist and that they still require being dealt with,” he said.

Feast said the release implied that the “remaining issues” lay with Charles. Thompson refused to respond, citing employer-employee confidentiality.

Royal Society of South Africa president John Skinner said that the information Charles forwarded should have been passed to the society by the NRF and that the society should have been involved in the decision-making process.

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