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Most of Australian Synchrotron Advisory Board Resigns

Yesterday a showdown at the Australian Synchrotron failed to resolve tensions between the warring factions. Synchrotron staff members and the facility's international scientific advisory committee (SAC) demanded an explanation for last month’s sudden sacking of the facility’s director, Robert Lamb, and that the chair of the synchrotron’s governing board, Catherine Walter, resign.

Walter declined to step down, however, and in a prepared speech made available to ScienceInsider, she reiterated the board’s previous position that the reasons for Lamb’s dismissal could not be discussed because of “legal and confidentiality constraints.”

In protest, five of the nine members of SAC resigned on Thursday and it is likely that one more will follow. In his resignation letter, SAC member  Michael Grunze, a professor of Applied Physical Chemistry at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, wrote:

“The professional advice of SAC, drawn collectively from many decades of collective experience at synchrotron facilities worldwide, has either been consistently ignored or not acted upon in a timely manner by the leadership of the AS Board. ... [This] is unprecedented in my experience as a previous chair of the BESSY SAC in Berlin and a member of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility Board in Grenoble.  I am very much concerned at the undue interference, especially by the chair, in day to day operational matters.

He also told ScienceInsider, “It’s a long trip to Australia; I made many such fly in, fly out trips. Being ignored, personally, I was offended. I’ve never been treated in such a way by the chair of a board. So I made it clear, as long as the present chair continues, I am not willing to continue to offer my time and advice to the board of the AS.”

In a statement written after a meeting today, staff scientists at the synchrotron wrote:

[We] are demoralised by the breakdown between the Board and the SAC. These eminent scientists have been our mentors, highly involved with the Australian Synchrotron since its inception and their absence will create a huge void in the scientific leadership of the facility.

But for the moment, the staff have decided not to go on strike as they did last week when they operated the synchrotron on a 9-5 basis rather than the standard 24 hour cycle. As one staff member told ScienceInsider, “Work-to-rule has been postponed while we explore other options.”

Australian synchrotron users desperately want the conflict resolved one way or another.  Despite the dissolution of the present SAC, University of Melbourne physicist, Keith Nugent who leads the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Coherent X-ray Science, believes the synchrotron will recover. “The scientific community will not walk away from the synchrotron. There will always be people who’ll step up to help us achieve our goals.  But we need to work out what went wrong and to fix it. And the board has to acknowledge some responsibility for this mess.”

*Correction, 6 August 2012: It was originally reported that seven of the nine members of SAC resigned on Thursday, however, five of the nine resigned.