Scientist justifiably sacked over GM incident

A senior government scientist who intentionally allowed genetically modified ryegrass plants to flower and potentially release pollen was justifiably sacked, the Employment Relations Authority has found.

Igor Kardailsky was dismissed from his job at AgResearch's Grasslands facility in Palmerston North in July after the Crown research institute decided his actions breached Ministry for Primary Industry regulations and could have caused a serious risk to biosecurity, the environment or public health.

Dr Kardailsky claimed he was unjustifiably dismissed.

The ryegrass plants were allowed to flower while Dr Kardailsky was on a brief period of annual leave in May last year, during which time he received an email from delegated facility operator Alicia Scott who said the flowering plants needed to be cut back or bagged.

Dr Kardailsky replied that there should not be too many flowering and the heads that emerged were immature.

He said he would have a look the next day and asked that nothing was cut back in the meantime.

Ms Scott asked in reply if she could remove flower spikes. Dr Kardailsky did not reply, so she took photos and removed the plants.

Three days later Dr Kardailsky sent an email to his team leader in which he said he struggled to understand why Ms Scott had done so, after which an employment investigation was launched.

AgResearch concluded that Dr Kardailsky had breached policy and Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and refused to obey a lawful and reasonable instruction.

The breach was reported to the ministry as an event of "critical non-compliance" which "could have caused a serious risk to biosecurity, the environment, or the health and safety of people and communities".

Dr Kardailsky argued there were contradictions in the controls over flowering plants, noting the documentation approving his experiment did not specifically prohibit the ryegrass from flowering.

He said the study and observation of flowering ryegrass was inherent to his research.

But a senior AgResearch scientist in the same field of study said there was no requirement within Dr Kardailsky's research for the plants to produce pollen, and it was clearly understood that grass species were to be bagged or cut back when they started flowering.

Employment Relations Authority member Michelle Ryan agreed with AgResearch that Dr Kardailsky had not properly contained the flowering ryegrass in accordance with procedures.

"I consider it was fair and reasonable for AgResearch to conclude that Dr Kardailsky intended the ryegrass to flower without the use of controls," she said.

Dr Kardailsky had argued Ms Scott's actions in cutting back the plants were "unduly severe and excessive" and challenged her assessment that the plants were flowering and releasing pollen.

But Ms Ryan dismissed allegations Ms Scott had an ulterior motive for reporting the flowering plants, namely professional tensions between her and Dr Kardailsky.

Ms Ryan found there were grounds for dismissal and rejected Dr Kardailsky's personal grievance claim.

Costs were reserved.

- Matthew Backhouse of APNZ

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