ESA Staffers Up in Arms

PARIS--The European Space Agency (ESA) is being roiled by a wave of discontent among staff members unhappy with an ongoing reorganization. Tensions have reached a boiling point now that the agency's employee union has called for a purge of the ESA directorate, headed by Director-General Jean-Marie Luton.

The trigger for the unrest is a "transformation" launched in 1995 to increase the agency's productivity. Implemented under pressure from ESA member states, the plan includes reviews of interactions with industry, a 20% cut in the agency's 1850 staff positions, and new requirements that ESA's divisions compete for projects with outside contractors. "We have to streamline ourselves," says the plan's main architect, launch vehicle director Fredrik Engström.

But some employees charge that they have yet to see these changes pay off, and that the agency's real problem is a half-dozen years of weak leadership. One result, says David Campbell, chair of the Staff Association Committee (SAC) at the ESA technical center in the Netherlands, is that member countries are increasingly choosing which projects to fund according to "which contracts they expect to get," not the recommendations of scientific and technical staff.

All SAC members across the agency's four major centers have resigned from reorganization working groups. They also presented a declaration to ESA's council at its December meeting stating that a majority of staff members "have no confidence in the ability of the executive to effectively improve the efficiency of ESA and secure its future," referring to Luton and his directors. "We are asking for our council to take action to get rid of what we regard as being an incompetent upper executive," says Campbell.

Luton was unavailable for comment, but council chair Hugo Parr says the council "has full faith in the executive." Parr adds that he and Luton met with SAC members at the December meeting and emphasized that it takes time to reform a multinational organization squeezed by declining budgets in its member countries. Parr says the council will try to hash things out with SAC in a meeting later this year.