Phil Charles suspended

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.

27 Responses to Phil Charles suspended

  1. Tom says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever met Phil, but I did read the Cape Times article:

    “Scientists I spoke to believe Charles is being punished because he declined to exclude the astronomical community from giving their input into decisions that might affect their livelihood and working facilities.”

    Not saying this is or is not what happened, but I have a horrible feeling the same thing is going on in the UK with the government, STFC and the physics/astronomy community.


  2. telescoper says:


    I received an email message from another South African astrophysicist (who should probably remain anonymous), encouraging UK folks to lobby. He certainly thinks that will help. That doesn’t however answer your question as to how to do it…


  3. Paul Crowther says:

    News item Top astronomer suspended after leak allegation from Nature today.

  4. Dave says:

    If there is to be lobbying, some coordination, or at least some information on who and how to lobby, would be useful.

    I have to say I’m rather shocked by this, knowing Phil, and think it might reflect rather poorly on how science is operating in RSA. Given this, and what’s been reported so far, I’d be rather worried about siting SKA there.

  5. Ray Wolstencroft says:

    I found an interesting item in a Capetown newspaper with fascinating blogged comments which suggest the real reason for this furore:


  6. andyxl says:

    Dear all – a contact tells me that Phil’s hearing is tomorrow, Feb 11th, and that the best course of action is to write to South African Newspapers – the Cape Times, The Star (Johannesburg), or the Mail and Guardian. The latter is the best respected amongst intellectuals, but is only weekly (Fridays). Short and forecful but not inflammatory is the trick I would think. I will write one to the Cape Times just now.

  7. andyxl says:

    Here is what I just sent to the Cape Times. I don’t know if it will appear of course. May be a bit long.

    Dear Sirs – as a senior astronomer in the UK, I was shocked to hear of the action of the National Research Foundation in suspending the Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory, Professor Phil Charles. As far as I can tell, his only offence was to speak to colleagues about a matter that concerns their careers and livelihoods – the siting of the planned new radio super-telescope, the SKA. The SKA is an enormous opportunity for world leadership by South African science, and Professor Charles is a key figure in the bid to win that. Professor Charles is enormously respected, trusted, and liked, worldwide. Obviously the SKA negotiations will be very sensitive, which is presumably why NRF have over-reacted; I hope they will see that suspending Charles will be nothing but counter-productive.

    Andy Lawrence, Regius Professor of Astronomy, University of Edinburgh

  8. Margaret Penston says:

    At the RAS Club dinner last night members unanimously expressed their support for Phil and their full agreement with all the sentiments in Andy’s letter to the Cape Times.

    • Very Afraid says:

      The NRF must be quaking with fear at the thought of all those black-tied retirees agreeing with each other over the port. I bet they change their minds about Phil Charles real soon now!

      • Monica Grady says:

        (1) most of the club members are active scientists; few are retired. (2) port is not drunk. (3) the sentiments were directed to our respected colleague Phil, to express our sympathy for his predicament and assure him of our support. They were not addressed to the NRF.

      • Paul Crowther says:


        Having not been to a RAS discussion session for a while, I was struck that the ratio of the average age of those attending the discussion session on Friday is about half that of the open meeting audience (immediately preceeds the RAS drinks and club dinner). This ratio has remained pretty static over the last 20 years or so.

        Most young ‘uns headed straight for the pub at 4pm. A pity, because Andy F gave an excellent Presidential address about the gov’t impact agenda and the impact of astronomy. Still, until the young ‘uns can be persuaded to stick around in sufficient numbers for the open meeting (if not the RAS club), I fear that the cynical view of Very Afraid about the RAS will continue.


    • andyxl says:

      Margaret – I wish I could tell you whether the letter has appeared, but I have no idea. You can only read some of the Cape Times online without a subscription.

  9. andyxl says:

    Sasha – thank you for letting me know. I hear that Phil’s hearing did not finish, and will restart on Feb 22nd. What an ordeal !

  10. andyxl says:

    Dear all – interesting development on this one. I found you can get a free seven day trial subscription to the Cape Times. As well as my letter, there is one from astronomers at the IAC, who of course have a long connection with Phil, and a fascinating news piece about the Science and Technology Minister (Naledi Pandor) trying to mediate in the dispute and being told by the NRF to keep her nose out, as this is simply a matter between employer and employee. It also states clearly that the NRF are not saying publicly exactly what Phil Charles is accused of, other than that it is to do with leaking information.

  11. I wish to express my support for Phil. South Africa is a young democracy and we really need to encourage good scientists to pass on skills. The good news is that we have a robust legal system in place, and all suspensions need to be dealt with in a manner that is procerdurally correct. Often the action of suspending a senior figure is done in anger, and consequently the procedures are not followed correctly. The integrity of the scientist ultimately prevails under such circumstances, but it is a traumatic experience from which both sides emerge worse off than before.

    Good luck Phil. My thoughts are with him and his family during these difficult days.

    Anthony Turton

  12. ulf r johansson says:

    Does anyone know anything substantial about the development of the Phil Charles case? Even up here close to the North Pole, we try to follow the story but are bewildered by the – silence.
    Ulf R Johansson, amateur astronomer, Malmö, Sweden

  13. Dave Carter says:

    This is the latest I have seen:

    I have written to the Mail and Guardian in support of Phil, but I have no idea whether my letter was published.

    Dave Carter

  14. ulf r johansson says:

    Thanks for up-dating!

    regards from

    Ulf R

  15. […] Charles update Regular readers will be aware of the Phil Charles suspension issue. The attached NRF press release has come to my attention; it seems that both the accusation and […]

  16. andyxl says:

    Thanks Will. Check out the latest update to see the NRF announcement.

  17. Ulf R Johansson, Sweden says:

    Sorry to disturb you ladies and gents, but I am desperate – can ANYONE here among you professionals inform me what has happened with the P/2010 A2 – that is the sensational asteroid collision documented by HST earlier this year. Eerie silence.. or am I just uninformed????
    Excuse me.
    Ulf R

  18. andyxl says:

    Ulf – I think there is nothing much more to say until more research has been done. Nobody saw the collision – just discovered a weird looking trail, the best explanation for which is that it is the result of a relatively recent collision. I think the main thing to do is keep monitoring and refine the orbit.. and keep an eye out for more. I think there is a chance that PanSTARRS will actually catch a collision, but somebody more expert than me may be able to comment.

  19. […] quite specified, but seeming to be insubordination. I wrote several posts about this, starting here and most recently here. Phil was cleared of all the charges… whatever they were… This […]

  20. nerds on site…

    […]Phil Charles suspended « The e-Astronomer[…]…

  21. Interim Management Vietnam

    Phil Charles suspended | The e-Astronomer

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