Funding cuts at Australia's leading scientific institution CSIRO have led to world-leading researchers seeing their positions abolished. At least one of these, Dr. San Thang, is so committed to his work that he has continued his role unpaid. What makes the story even more poignant is that at the same time Thang was let go, there was speculation he might share a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Even prior to the latest twist, Thang's story is remarkable. At 24 he fled Vietnam. These days, on approaching Australia he would have been sent to a detention center, possibly on Nauru or Manus Island, where abuse and torture are commonplace, and permanently barred from settling in the country. However, in 1978 Australian responses to refugees were very different, and Thang was welcomed.
After completing a Ph.D. at Griffith University, Thang joined CSIRO, the venerable institution which has provided the backbone of Australian scientific research for nearly 90 years. CSIRO famously saved the nation's agriculture from rabbit plagues, collected the signal from Armstrong's famous “small step” and transformed the printing of bank notes across much of the world.
Along with Dr. Graeme Moad and Dr. Ezio Rizzardo, Thang helped invent Reversible Addition-Fragmentation Chain Transfer (RAFT), a way to make plastics more adaptable.
Professor Steven Bottle of Queensland University of Technology, who has applied RAFT technology in his own research says, “Polymerization is taking small molecules and putting them together like putting together bricks to make a wall. You want a certain length but polymers can be a bit random, distributed around the norm but some longer, some shorter. The narrower the spread the better. RAFT makes the process less uncontrolled, it can be stopped at the right point. It provides us with a much greater ability to make architecture that can be useful.”
In practical terms, Bottle says, “We can make layers, or capsules to carry drugs, or polymers that expand or contract under specific conditions. It gives molecular builders better materials.”
Earlier this year, the RAFT inventers shared the ATSE Clunies Ross Award, one of the most prestigious science and engineering honors in Australia.
There were rumors that they were also in line for something even bigger: the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Thomas Reuters had them ranked as one of three favorites.
Bottle says, “The truth is no one knows, the Nobel Prize committee is instructed to keep it secret.” Nevertheless, he believes, “San would have to be in the mix” when the committee met this year, and probably will be for the next year too.
Such a win would have come in very handy, since the prize comes with a monetary award of over a million dollars split between the winners in each category.
The cutting of $111 million over four years from government funding has created a hole even the income from CSIRO's invention of Wi-Fi cannot fill. Nearly 20% of the workforce has either been made redundant, or soon will be. Talk of shielding frontline researchers from cutbacks has meant that highly qualified scientists are doing jobs once handled by cleaners and administrative assistants.
Thang has been among those let go. However, he has continued supervising Ph.D. students in an honorary capacity. “Being a scientist, that's what I love to do,” Thang told Fairfax newspapers, adding that he did not want to blame CSIRO which “has given me a very good career” for the decision made under difficult circumstances.
"In Australia, the doors opened [for me] and I still want to be part of CSIRO and elsewhere to make use of my knowledge, I want to inspire people."