health & science

SKA scientists come out to condemn smears

Support has been flowing for the scientist at the centre of a bitter telescope dispute - some of it from astronomers directly involved in the organisation he was attacked for critiquing. 

Astronomers working on scientific projects associated with the Square Kilometre Array telescope internationally - including a board member - responded to the Newsroom story on social media, calling the actions of New Zealand SKA supporters at AUT “disgraceful” and asking the international organisation to express “concern and displeasure”.

Newsroom detailed on Monday that AUT lecturer Andrew Ensor sent a string of emails to journalists and senior government officials disparaging the honesty, professionalism and, in one case, mental health, of the University of Auckland’s head of physics, Richard Easther.

Ensor wasn’t acting alone - AUT’s Vice Chancellor, Derek McCormack, and AUT Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation, John Raine, repeated his claims of dishonesty and unprofessionalism to government officials (in Raine’s case) and Easther’s boss, the University of Auckland's dean of science John Hosking (in McCormack’s case).

AUT has indicated that Ensor challenges some aspects of the story and will respond with his side. (We will update our story when that happens). AUT was given a full opportunity for comment before the main story's publication on Monday.

Easther campaigned outspokenly against New Zealand taking full membership of the telescope-building consortium of countries, arguing the roughly $25m-over-a-decade cost of membership would be better shared more evenly around astronomy. He and 11 others asked for an overall astronomy spending plan less heavily focused on radio astronomy (the SKA's field).

The SKA will be an enormous radio telescope in the deserts of Australia and South Africa, and about seven staff radio astronomers in New Zealand have told the government they’re enthusiastic about using it for research. AUT and tech companies who’ve been working on taxpayer-funded contracts on the SKA’s design lobbied strongly for New Zealand to take full membership, saying the benefits to innovation and the tech industry would more than justify the cost. They felt the government made a big mistake by backing off when it had already spent more than $2m on pre-construction design. Had the government joined, New Zealand organisations would have been able to bid for construction contracts.

The letters and emails from people at AUT said Easther was inappropriate, unprofessional, on a personal crusade, harassing people, knowingly spreading wrong information, and that there had been “multiple complaints” about him, among other things. Matters culminated in an email in January sent by Ensor - who is the director of a taxpayer-funded group, the New Zealand SKA Alliance - to tech journalist Peter Griffin. Ensor said he thought Easther “would benefit far more from seeking medical help rather than greater exposure in the media” and implied he and his colleagues were refraining from criticising Easther publicly because Easther was mentally unwell.

AUT has expressed no concern about Ensor’s actions, at least not publicly, though it did tell Easther's boss that Ensor accepted he shouldn't have sent the email to Griffin.

When the University of Auckland complained about the “mental health” email, McCormack replied that Ensor's email was quoted "out of context" by the University of Auckland when it complained to AUT. (Newsroom’s full story contains the whole email).

Newsroom’s story prompted support on social media for Easther from former students and collaborators of Easther’s and colleagues from the University of Auckland - including Shaun Hendy, Nicola Gaston and JJ Eldridge - who tweeted their condemnation of what they variously called smears and unjustifiable attacks that contravened the Royal Society’s code.

Astronomer Nicholas Rattenbury sent a statement to Newsroom saying debate about the telescope had featured “increasing acrimony”. “People who have raised concerns about the SKA in public or with the Government have been the subject of apparently baseless accusations, and have become the target of apparent bullying and intimidation. This is unacceptable,” he said.

A second tech journalist, Juha Saarinen, confirmed on Twitter that he also received an email from a third party about Easther after he wrote a column for the New Zealand Herald on a different topic mentioning in passing that the SKA was a “white elephant” that “the government was going cold on”. “Three days later I was sent an email in which Andrew Ensor at AUT attacked [Easther],” he tweeted. Neither Saarinen’s column nor Griffin’s column had mentioned Easther.

The saga attracted attention and condemnation overseas from scientists who are actively working on the SKA project and related science.

Bryan Gaensler - an Australian working in Canada on the SKA’s science development - tweeted that the allegations were a “disgrace” and Easther was “a scientist of the highest integrity”. He said the pair disagreed on the telescope’s merits but in a respectful and factual way and there was “no place for attacks like this”.

Gaensler is listed on the SKA’s website lists as a member of the telescope’s board.

Also “appalled” was astronomer Jonathan Pritchard, who works on SKA-related science from Imperial College London.

Pritchard called on the SKA’s international HQ to express “concern and displeasure” about the smears - tagging in the Twitter handle of the SKA’s Director-General, Phil Diamond. He said the international SKA organisation had a code of ethics that was clear on such behaviour.

Diamond was in New Zealand seeking support for the SKA when Minister Megan Woods announced last year that New Zealand wouldn’t be seeking full membership, sparking a furious and disappointed reaction from AUT and tech companies such as Catalyst IT, who’d been working on the SKA’s pre-construction design for years.

Although their work has been part-funded by MBIE, AUT and others have said they’ve collectively spent more than $10m on the project paying staff and other costs, expecting they could bid for contracts later.

Easther said since the story broke he’d been approached with messages of solidarity by several AUT staff. He said the whole experience had been “bittersweet”: “I am really quite taken aback by the support I have received from colleagues and strangers, as well as the intensity of the attacks [in the first place].”

He's said that while the mental illness claim was untrue, it shouldn't have been used as a smear and wouldn't invalidate his views on a telescope.


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