Phil Charles suspended

February 2, 2010

Maybe STFC ain’t so closed and autocratic after all. I have just been hearing distressing news about Phil Charles, currently Director of SAAO, but of course very well known to UK astronomers from his long distinguished career in Oxford, La Palma, Southampton and elsewhere. Phil has been suspended for talking to his fellow astronomers about the plans of the parent body of SAAO and SALT, the South African National Research Foundation (NRF). There is a hearing due in a few days and he may well be dismissed.

You can read about the affair in a report in the Cape Times, and in a piece by an opposition politician. Its quite hard to tell exactly whats going on, because everybody in an official position is being tight lipped. But judging by the unattributed comments referred to in those articles, it seems to be connected with NRF’s bid to host the SKA, the siting of its operational centre, and the lack of consultation with SAAO staff about these issues.If anybody knows better, and can speak without breaching confidence, do let us know.

Everybody who knows Phil knows what a straightforward chap he is, and how passionate he is about South African astronomy (as well as astronomy in general !) It seems that the NRF may be concerned about controlled handling of the SKA situation, and goodness knows this will be increasingingly politically tense; but if they want to seem like responsible and competent corporate partners, then firing such a respected and trusted senior astronomer seems a pretty dim thing to do. Lets hope they see sense.

Does anybody know whether lobbying will help ? And if so, how it should be done ?

You might also want to read about pigeons are faster than email if you want to contact SAAO.