Laid-off top scientist working without pay

Laid-off top scientist working without pay
Dr San Thang.

For the past three months, world renowned chemist Dr San Thang has been turning up to work each day at Australia's national science agency even though he has lost his job and is not being paid.

Dr Thang, 60, has been tipped for a Nobel prize for his work on polymers and developing new plastics, but was made redundant due to a series of drastic cuts to science funding in Australia.

"I had one or two days when I was sad after my redundancy," he told The Straits Times. "Then I got over it and thought I can still come in and enjoy my day. I like my work and I like my science."

Dr Thang's decision to continue working made national headlines when it was revealed earlier this month and highlighted a series of deep funding cuts that have triggered fierce criticism.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has cut A$115 million (S$125 million) from the budget of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (Csiro) over the next four years.

The cuts are expected to make jobless almost 900 staff - about 15 per cent of the agency's workforce - by the middle of next year. This follows previous cuts last year under the Labor government which led to about 500 staff losing their jobs.

Critics said the cuts threaten Australia's future prosperity, particularly since Csiro has been responsible for ground-breaking and lucrative inventions. These include wireless Internet (Wi-Fi) technology which has brought in A$420 million over the past five years, polymer or plastic banknotes now used in 25 countries, and a new cotton variety that brings in up to A$20 million a year.

"It's not just [the scientists'] future at risk, it's yours, too," warned an editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald.

As part of austerity moves aimed at reducing the government's spiralling deficit, Mr Abbott cut funding to other agencies, including the Australian Research Council, Defence Science and Technology Organisation and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.

He also abandoned the position of a standalone science minister -the first time Australia has been without such a portfolio since the 1960s.

The opposition says the moves would push Australia "back into the dark ages", and the scientific community has also expressed concern.

A report released two weeks ago by the Office of the Chief Scientist said Australia saw a fall in the number of international patents in the past 10 years, and that the standing of its school students in international tests had declined since 2003.

"If we're going to compete in the global market we have to be producing the goods, the materials, the thinking, that is relevant to the global market," said the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb.

Canberra has committed to significantly boost medical research funding. It wants to set up a A$20 billion medical research fund, though this may depend on whether it can pass several Budget measures through the Senate, which it does not control.

In the meantime, Dr Thang, who fled Vietnam as a refugee in 1979, continues to research and to supervise students. He has been working at Csiro for about 28 years and rose to the position of chief research scientist but is now an honorary fellow.

"I have savings and can draw on my pension," he said. "It is enough for me to live on. I still come in and do things I like. I can supervise my post-doc students and give advice to staff."

Dr Thang, who lives in Melbourne with his Hong Kong-born wife, said he had benefited greatly from his years at Csiro.

"I am loyal and grateful to Csiro," he said. It "gave me a very, very good career. At least I left something behind. I received so much from people - it is time to give back to society".

This article was first published on Dec 13, 2014.
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