CSIRO accused of more shabby tactics
- April 14, 2013
Linton Besser and Nicky Phillips
Fairfax Media investigates the treatment meted out to an eminent entomologist by the CSIRO.
Bullying: Dr Sylwester Chyb accuses the CSIRO of intimidation. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
In late 2004, Sylwester Chyb was teaching at the prestigious Imperial College in England when the award-winning entomologist was presented with an exciting opportunity – becoming a molecular cell biologist at Australia’s peak scientific body.
Urged by CSIRO to accept the position and promised he would lead a team working towards discoveries in the area of his specialty – insect neurobiology – Dr Chyb saw a bright future in Australia.
But within days of uprooting his family in 2005 and moving to Canberra, things began to fall apart. Now the eminent scientist is taking the CSIRO to court, accusing it of bullying, deception and breach of contract.
”It was the biggest mistake of my life,” Dr Chyb said.
His experience is the latest revelation in a Fairfax Media investigation into the workings of Australia’s peak science organisation, which has revealed evidence of serious mismanagement and questionable practices.
There were clear warning signs even as Dr Chyb negotiated his contract. According to his statement of claim, shortly after his final interview, Dr Stephen Trowell, an official in the same division, invited him for a coffee at the CSIRO Discovery Centre at Black Mountain.
”I had never heard of Stephen Trowell, but he claimed to be working in my area,” Dr Chyb recalled. ”He said, ‘Don’t worry, if you’re unsuccessful, then you can work for me.”’
It was only years later Dr Chyb discovered that his appointment had been recommended by external reviewers to the CSIRO to overcome Dr Trowell’s perceived shortcomings.
Dr Trowell’s comment was troubling because it would have been a significant demotion for the Oxford and Cambridge-educated scientist. After he raised his concerns, the contract Dr Chyb signed had another scientist identified as his line manager. Despite this, Dr Chyb’s statement of claim in the Federal Court says that on his first day of work he discovered that Dr Trowell was indeed his boss and would remain so until midway through the following year.
It was a portent of what was to come. He became increasingly upset at what he perceived to be a campaign against him and he contributed to the tension with what he acknowledges was direct language. The funding promised for long-term research into insect chemoreception he says largely never materialised.
In mid-2009 his division bosses refused him permission to accept a publishing deal for a groundbreaking book on the Drosophila, or fruit fly, which is a widely used laboratory model organism. He was not allowed to work on it even in his own time.
In the end it was the breakdown of Dr Chyb’s relationship with Dr Trowell that led to his departure. It was only years later that he discovered an external review by international science leaders had made a frank assessment of Dr Trowell’s scientific standing.
”The committee considers that although the leader has a track record of patenting and as a CEO of a start-up company … he does not have as much credibility as the committee feels necessary,” the document said.
”The addition to this group of Dr S. Chyb, a researcher with a good publication record and interest in insect gustatory receptors is seen as a positive development.”
In April 2009 Dr Trowell accused Dr Chyb of intimidating a younger scientist; he was forced to formally apologise a few days later for an email he circulated containing the allegation.
At the end of the year a misconduct investigation was sparked, which led to Dr Chyb’s departure. He had been accused of trying to profit from the accommodation allowance CSIRO gave a recruit – he had moved into a studio flat Dr Chyb and his wife owned – but Dr Chyb had expressly sought permission for the transaction. Now CSIRO is relying on this allegation as part of its defence against Dr Chyb’s legal claim.
While he was defending that accusation Dr Chyb discovered a discrepancy in the money budgeted for his researcher’s relocation on a document which carried his signature. Dr Chyb was sure he had never signed it.
And he was right. An external investigation commissioned by CSIRO found his signature had been electronically forged on to the page.
The investigation against Dr Chyb over the researcher’s stay never eventuated. Instead, CSIRO made Dr Chyb’s position redundant.
”They painted a picture of no-compromise, blue-sky science,” he said. ”But [I] ended up working … on very applied projects. There would be no way I would give up my permanent job for that.”
Dr Chyb’s court hearing is set down for later this year.
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