Stinkatron: chaos at the top
CARMEL EGANNovember 8, 2009
AUSTRALIA'S elite scientific community has been stunned by the sudden and unexplained dismissal of the director of the nation's only synchrotron facility - a multimillion-dollar, revolutionary research centre and pet project of Premier John Brumby.
Professor Robert Lamb was dismissed and escorted from the synchrotron complex at Clayton 10 days ago following increasing tensions with the facility's board of directors.
Fears are now mounting that conflict over management of the world-class facility could damage its international reputation and jeopardise future funding and research contracts.
Colleagues told The Sunday Age Professor Lamb - who was on secondment from the University of Melbourne - may have been made a scapegoat for the failure of the Australian Synchrotron company to secure government funding beyond 2012.
In an email to staff announcing that Professor Lamb had been replaced as the facility's director, the board expressed concerns for its long-term funding.
Speculation is rife among scientific colleagues that Professor Lamb's removal was a pre-emptive strike by the board ahead of its first appraisal by the Auditor-General, due to be tabled in Parliament in June next year.
His dismissal is reported to have followed a fiery meeting between the board and the synchrotron's scientific advisory committee in September, at which there was heated debate about the centre's future funding and the direction of its research.
It is believed two leading members of the scientific advisory committee resigned in protest after that meeting.
''They [the committee] have often not seen eye to eye with the board,'' said an informed source who did not wish to be named.
''There is an organisational, structural issue which has always lent itself to conflict because of the way synchrotron was set up by the Victorian Government … as a company rather than a government institution.''
Leading scientists and researchers who use the synchrotron are reportedly preparing a public statement about the board's conduct and the secrecy surrounding Professor Lamb's dismissal.
A synchrotron is a massive machine that produces beams of intense light that can probe the physical structure of materials as minute as atoms and molecules.
It is used for research in areas as diverse as forensic science, biotechnology, drug design, toxicology, food technology, engineering and medical therapies.
In 2001, John Brumby, then minister for innovation, got approval for the synchrotron to be built on land adjacent to Monash University, and secured its start-up costs of $221 million in state and federal funding.
Since opening in July 2007, the synchrotron has attracted international and national contracts from universities, private companies and interstate and foreign governments. It is now running at 98 per cent capacity.
In a media release dated October 30 but sent to The Sunday Age on Friday, Australian Synchrotron chairwoman Catherine Walter confirmed the facility's ''secondment agreement with facility director Professor Robert Lamb, has ended … [he] is now free to return to the University of Melbourne to continue his research''.
Ms Walter - who resigned from the National Australia Bank board following controversy over her handling of a 2004 foreign exchange scandal that cost the bank $360 million - would not return calls from The Sunday Age.
Professor Lamb has been replaced by acting facility director Dr George Borg. According to synchrotron user groups and stakeholders secrecy surrounding the dismissal is causing disquiet.
Professor Lamb did not reply to questions from The Sunday Age. Chairman of the synchrotron's scientific advisory committee and Victoria's chief scientist (energy), Professor Frank Larkins, also refused to comment.
A spokesman for the Premier said his office was unaware of Professor Lamb's dismissal.