Newsroom Special Inquiry

AUT backs sender of “mental health” email

Scientists have been arguing bitterly for more than a year about taxpayer funding for the Square Kilometre Array telescope. But when a top physicist was vocal with his criticisms, things got nasty. 

A top New Zealand physicist has had his conduct and mental health attacked after he criticised taxpayer funding for the Square Kilometre Array telescope.

A lecturer from AUT told a journalist the physicist from the neighbouring University of Auckland should seek medical help and warned him “be prepared to have the finger pointed at you if and when mental health issues get dragged out in the media.”

But the subject of his aspersions, the University of Auckland's head of physics, Richard Easther, does not have a mental illness and says that, if he did, it should not be used to discredit his opinions. Many scientists would have found the email deeply distressing, he says. 

Top brass at AUT still back their lecturer Andrew Ensor – and have themselves sent emails and letters about Easther, after he told government officials, other scientists, and journalists he thought a proposed $25m in taxpayer funding for the telescope was a poor use of public money. 

In the year to December 2018, staff at AUT sent at least seven emails mentioning Easther to government officials who were leading the telescope project, saying he was inappropriate, unprofessional, on a personal crusade, harassing people, knowingly spreading wrong information, and that there had been “complaints” about him.

Most of the emails came from Ensor, the director of a government-funded group, the NZ SKA Alliance. But at least two came from higher up – from Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation John Raine, and Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack. MBIE redacted some of the emails, so Newsroom does not have a full set.

AUT and some tech companies have campaigned strongly for the government to sign the SKA treaty. The government decided to pursue full membership in 2016 but changed tack after the last election. In the past seven months, MBIE paid $800,000 to private companies and universities to work on SKA-related contracts, with the biggest chunk, $330,500, going to AUT. AUT and companies such as Catalyst IT and others have also spent millions of their own money on salaries and costs associated with their SKA work over several years, in the expectation they'd be able to bid for contracts once New Zealand signed the treaty. 

When the first phase of the telescope is built, the SKA will be a vast array of radio antennae and dishes in the deserts of Australia and South Africa working together as a single, super-sensitive instrument. The arrays will generate an almost unfathomable amount of data, which is why computing experts have been working on the pre-construction design of the telescope -- to figure out how astronomers can store and make sense of all the data.

Eleven other New Zealand astronomers signed a letter with Easther calling for a re-think of the spending. Two prominent Kiwi-born astronomers overseas -- Gerry Gilmore, who heads the Gaia spacecraft project at Cambridge University, and Warrick Couch, a leading astronomer based in Melbourne – have also told Newsroom that signing the treaty would not have made sense for New Zealand.

Radio astronomers, however, are excited to be able to use the telescope and eight of them at various universities wrote to the government in support of the funding.

Asked about the email, AUT told Newsroom it would not be disciplining Ensor and relayed further allegations to Newsroom, but could not tell us who'd made them. 

AUT's complaints stem from Easther's emails about the cost of the telescope and a conference they invited him to -- where Easther stood up and told the assembled SKA supporters why he didn’t think the project should get full funding. They've said he was disruptive and inappropriate -- however Easther says he challenged them about the telescope funding strongly, but did nothing unprofessional. He angered some present, but another AUT lecturer told Newsroom Easther's interjections were "healthy" and "welcome".

AUT also got into a dispute with MBIE officials who recommended New Zealand not sign the SKA treaty and capped telescope-related funding. 

Emails released under the Official Information Act reveal Ensor warned officials of a “fight to the death” over any attempt to reduce the value of government-funded SKA contracts. AUT accused government officials of denying errors in their briefings and being “personally caught up in irrelevant issues” and told them Cabinet Ministers were “very unimpressed” with them. 

Another time, AUT Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack referred to a “regrettable breakdown” with a Victoria University astronomer who was previously involved in the SKA, which he stressed was not AUT's fault.

The most recent email about Easther came after many other messages about him to government officials and journalists over a year.

It came at a time when Catalyst IT had hired a PR consultant to generate positive media coverage for the SKA, in a bid to get the government to re-open its decision. 

Tech writer and the former Science Media Centre director Peter Griffin wrote a more critical take for Stuff.co.nz, saying the SKA was not the right investment for New Zealand.

Ensor thought Easther was behind the column and emailed Griffin saying he thought Easther “would benefit far more from seeking medical help rather than greater exposure in the media.” He implied he and his colleagues were refraining from criticising Easther publicly because Easther was mentally unwell.

Ensor told Griffin he was “giving him a chance” to correct what the AUT lecturer thought were errors in Griffin’s column. “If you want to continue providing (Easther) with a soap box…be prepared to have the finger pointed at you if and when mental health issues get dragged out in the media,” said Ensor. “Unlike many academics such as myself, he does not belong to a professional organisation that enforces a code of conduct and integrity, and this has led to multiple complaints about his antics.”

When asked about the email, AUT’s spokeswoman relayed another complaint to Newsroom, but couldn’t say who’d made the claim or put Newsroom in touch with the source.

Newsroom also asked AUT who’d made the “multiple complaints” Ensor referred to in his email to Griffin, and what they involved. But the university said it couldn’t say without seeking permission, which wasn’t forthcoming. “Disagreements between scientists are not unheard of – especially where competitive research funding is at stake. The real issue is the SKA and whether New Zealand can stay in it,” began AUT’s reply.

When Easther’s boss at the University of Auckland, the Dean of Science, John Hosking, complained to AUT about Ensor’s email, AUT again responded with more allegations, this time from the top of the institution – Vice Chancellor Derek McCormack.

McCormack replied that Ensor now accepted he should not have made the mental health comments to a journalist, but Ensor had been prompted by “genuine concern”. McCormack went on to accuse Easther of making factual errors and of “emotional outbursts”, “colourful rhetoric”, “wild assertions”, “inappropriate” behaviour and “attacking the SKA” at two telescope-related conferences.

Read the full story of the emails, and how the SKA has gone from something virtually everyone supported to a source of smears and division, here

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