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Striking Synchrotron Scientists Still Unhappy Down Under

3 December 2009 11:57 am
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This week, at the Australian Synchrotron (AS) in Melbourne, long simmering tensions between staff researchers and the facility’s business-oriented governing board erupted into an open battle. On Monday, scientists at the synchrotron went on strike, temporarily reducing the facility’s normal 24 hour operation to a nine-to-five schedule.  Chemist Frank Larkins, the chair of AS’s international scientific advisory committee (SAC) and a University of Melbourne emeritus professor called for the chair of the board, lawyer Catherine Walters, to step down. “We don’t believe we can solve this without a change of the chair,” he tells ScienceInsider.

Just last September, the US$202 million synchrotron, Australia’s largest scientific investment, seemed to be riding high. It was running at 98% capacity; it hosted an international congress and showcased a dazzling array of applications. The success was attributed to the leadership of its director, Robert Lamb, the University of Melbourne chair of chemistry who has run the institute since its opening in July 2007.  “The institute was seen as a tremendous success”, says Janet Smith, a protein crystallographer at the University of Michigan Medical School and a member of the synchrotron’s SAC.

So it was a shock to the domestic and international scientific community when the synchrotron’s Board unceremoniously sacked Lamb on 30 October.

SAC wrote a letter of protest to Victorian Premier John Brumby and Kim Carr, the federal science minister, noting: "In our collective experience spanning decades and continents, no synchrotron director has ever been removed from office without notice.'' The committee threatened to resign if no explanation was given. 

Lamb’s popularity among the staff and the veil of secrecy over his firing eventually led to this week’s strike action and Larkins’ demand for the chair to step down.

The major bone of contention between Lamb and the board was apparently a strategic plan to raise the next round of funds to add more beamlines, the streams of radiation that allow the synchrotron to, among other things, image tissues and solve protein structures. According to Smith, SAC had been extremely concerned about starting to prepare the funding proposal by February, since a deadline of 8 December loomed to apply for US$37 million of Commonwealth Government funds for four new beamlines. Yet when SAC visited in September, there was little progress on such a plan, a consequence they felt of excessive interference by the board. “The board is much more involved in the administration than is necessary or good,” observed Smith.

A funding proposal for the new beamlines has been put together since the sacking of Lamb but contrary to usual practice, it has not been reviewed by SAC members. The timeline for such a review was extremely short, and failing an adequate explanation for Lamb’s dismissal, “we didn’t want to give the message that it was business as usual,” says Smith.

Members of the board paint a very different picture of who is at fault. The synchrotron was constituted as a business with a very diverse set of shareholders, including the Victorian and other state governments, the Commonwealth Government, universities, research institutes and the government of New Zealand, notes Sean Gallagher, a board member, director of the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre, and a former spectroscopist who carried out research at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. “There was a breakdown in the relationship with shareholders and critical compliance issues,” says Gallagher. According to him, the board signed off on a business and strategic plan in July but Lamb showed little interest in moving it forward.

“We were deeply concerned about the development of the science and investment case [for new beamlines],” says Gallagher. According to Gallagher, the board, whose members boast five academic Ph.D.s, was “unanimous in their decision to dismiss him." The Victorian government, the largest stakeholder of the synchrotron, is backing the board and there is no indication that it will replace Walters, which the facility’s governing constitution would allow.

On Wednesday the board made a few peace offerings. In response to a long-standing SAC request that the board appoint members who are active scientists, it appointed distinguished x-ray crystallographer Peter Colman, currently at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.  The board also announced the formation of a new advocacy group to raise awareness of synchrotron science, the Australian Synchrotron National Science Colloquium, to be headed by Gustav Nossal, a former director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Nossal also hopes to foster better communication between the warring parties.   “I’m confident we can and must,” he says. 

And the board agreed to a meeting next Wednesday with the synchrotron’s scientists, a move that has seen the cessation of the strike for now; the facility is again operating full-time.  But as one of the beamline scientists put it, this is a truce not a treaty.

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