South African Shakeup

July 19, 2011

While we are getting depressed about JWST, here is some news that can cheer us up. The South African National Research Foundation has announced that it is restructuring its management of astronomy, implementing a “single cluster approach” with “a dedicated, stand-alone unit for the management of facilities and projects”, and that they will start looking for “a suitably qualified and experienced astronomer/physicist to head the Astronomy cluster.” You can find the statement of the NRF board here  and a statement by the Democratic Alliance welcoming this change here. My sources tell me that an announcement has been made to SAAO staff.

The management-speak may be making you glaze over, but permit me to translate. NRF will stop micro-managing astronomy; decisions will be science-led rather than taken for dubious corporate reasons; astronomers will be able to run their own projects; South Africa has become a plausible international partner for the SKA, and greatly improved its chances of winning that prize.

The background, as most of you will remember, was the bizarre suspension of Phil Charles, for reasons never 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 new announcement goes beyond that exoneration, and effectively vindicates his original actions. Phil is now on the verge of completing his tenure as Director and returning to Southampton. The restructuring makes it plausible that NRF can recruit somebody good to fill his shoes. It must feel very sweet.

Those who like a little schadenfreude stirred into their celebration glass may want to note in the above link the delicately worded announcement that Dr Gatsha Mazithulela will be spending more time with his family.

Phil Charles fallout

March 18, 2010

Nature News has a very interesting update on the continuing Phil Charles story. Here is a precis :

  • Phil Charles has been re-instated and publicly declared innocent of all charges.
  • …but the NRF has still not said … err… what the charges were. (Here is last week’s press release.)
  • Phil Charles is is not allowed to discuss these charges
  • The NRF say the charges were definitely nothing to do with location of the MeerKAT HQ site. No sirree. Purely to do with unauthorised circulation of confidential documents…
  • Michael Feast states this actually refers to an email that Charles forwarded to colleagues
  • That email concerned …  the location of the MeerKAT HQ site
  • Royal Society of South Africa has called for “public inquiry into this damaging incident”

So if Phil was hoping to settle down to a quiet life he might be disappointed.

Update Friday : the Department of Science Technology issued this press release. It explains that although last week’s NRF press release seemed to say “the judge says you was not guilty, but we know where you live , see”, actually this was just an “unintended ambiguity”.

Phil Charles update

March 7, 2010

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 defense sides have been heard, and the Chairman of the hearing has now retired to consider his verdict … due at the end of the coming week.

Initially many of us had assumed that the hearing would be a one day affair. Then it gradually became clear that it would be spread over multiple days, followed by this consideration period. It seemed to be pretty formal and legalistic, but with the defense case heard BEFORE the accusations, which seems quite bizarre. Halfway through, there was an attempted intervention by the Science Minister, Naledi Pandor, as described in this piece in the Mail and Guardian. This shows I guess that the shocked international reaction has made a difference.

But at the end of the day it may come down to judgement by senior NRF staff. None of us know exactly what happened, or what the NRF rule book says; just that firing an honourable figure like Charles on a technicality would be a mistake – politically, managerially, and morally.

Cross fingers for the final run.

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.