“APUO has been informed that a toxic waste company had been retained by the University in 2008. The company emptied your lab and destroyed your materials,” my union told me in 2017.
Labour tribunal arbitrator William Kaplan will decide the matter. Hearings start in Ottawa in January 2019.
The university’s position is that the “grievance regarding destruction of scientific samples received on June 8, 2017” cannot be brought by the APUO (Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa) because I am no longer an employee, a position that itself is grieved as a violation of binding agreements.
I was fired on March 31, 2009, under the false pretext of having assigned all A+ grades in an advanced physics course. The university administration was angry at me, because I was an outspoken critic and published a blog (U of O Watch) that questioned the honesty and ethics of many administrative actions. The union (the APUO) is still litigating my dismissal.
The union’s demand is full restitution. Nothing irreplaceable is supposed to be destroyed. Therefore, destroying unique documents and samples is obstruction of justice.
Furthermore, not disclosing the covert destruction of the samples during the lengthy dismissal arbitration process is a contravention of natural justice. The information could have changed the outcome of the dismissal arbitration, which is now under an appellate-court judicial review that is blind to the new facts.
Moreover, there is harm to science itself, which the university has a mission to advance, not sabotage. And the destruction of the samples is an egregious violation of academic freedom, which the university has a mission to protect.
Background about my scientific career
The public has heard only about the A+ grades and less about the administration’s disproportionate reactions to my outspokenness and opposition to administrative overreach.
Another dimension not known by the public is that I am an internationally recognized scientist and featured conference speaker, as echoed by my current Google Scholar profile.
When I was fired, I was winding down the largest Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Strategic Project Grant (SPG) funding term that the faculty of science had ever received and starting a new research funding cycle. Furthermore, my teaching, community work and supervision were exemplary.
The university administration summarily and permanently banned me from teaching, from supervising my research students on campus, and from accessing my laboratories and offices, on December 10, 2008.
As we now know, the university administration was not satisfied to merely lock me out, but immediately covertly destroyed my scientific samples that I had secured by painstaking efforts over decades.
Description of the scientific samples that were destroyed
I first learned of the destruction in 2017 when I asked my union to arrange access to some of my samples after scientists at a leading high-technology firm asked me to collaborate on a new state-of-the-art nanoscopic measurement of a unique meteorite in my collection.
The particular sample was an unoxidized piece of the Santa Catharina meteorite, in which I co-discovered the new meteoritic metallic mineral “antitaenite”. My group then went on to prove that antitaenite is an iron-rich alloy that is perfectly non-magnetic, a situation that had been theorized by quantum mechanical calculations but never proven or detected in nature. This led to advances in understanding the metallic cores of primordial planets and it led my group to eventually propose a solution to the longstanding “Invar problem” of metal physics, thereby explaining how the synthetic magnetic alloy “Invar” can have its bewildering near-zero thermal expansion over a broad range of temperatures.
The university claimed to have destroyed everything.
My coveted meteorite sample, one of the most studied pieces of a primordial planet ever measured by scientists, was gone.
This was not the only precious and irreplaceable sample that the university would have destroyed. There were hundreds.
The study of science at microscopic scales relies on specimens and samples. Likewise, the necessary reproducibility of science relies on access to the samples as an available resource.
Much of my work for decades was dedicated to locating, accessing, and synthesizing unique samples that could unlock vital questions of science, and to safeguarding the samples for other researchers.
I kept detailed catalogs and laboratory notebooks on all the samples and on all the exchanges or movements of the samples. The university in 2018 says it “has not located” any of my twenty or so laboratory notebooks about the samples. It would seem that the university has negligently lost or destroyed the most probative documents about the samples.
Solely on the metal physics “Invar” question, I had entire suites of samples of synthetic alloys, made by varying the alloy composition, the synthesis quench rates, and the alloying method, such as impact alloying. These were made by leading scientists specifically for our collaborations. Many were unique in the world and had provided the first examples of artificially made “antitaenite”, for example.
On the meteorite front, in addition to the Santa Catharina specimen and various other meteorites, I had the largest collected purified remnant (tens of milligrams) of the meteorite that may have killed the dinosaurs, preserved in my laboratory in an inert atmosphere, awaiting the opportunity for advanced study. A researcher had first discovered such remnants (micrograms) at the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K/T) boundary in sedimentary rocks in France and had studied them by electron microscopy and microanalysis. I convinced the researcher to extract the first large amount of these remnants for study by advanced characterization methods perfected in my laboratory. He did. To destroy this sample, the university had to break the large, sealed, glass inert-atmosphere container.
The university destroyed my collection of synthetic covalent-network-forming metallic alloys based on Fe-Cr-As. Fortunately, many of these samples had been transferred to researchers at the University of Toronto prior to the university’s destruction, and the samples continue to enable fundamental physics discoveries related to cooperative transitions and superconductivity, while most of them have not yet been studied.
One of my most scientifically profitable career-long collaborations was with a French researcher who is widely considered the leading expert in the synthesis of complex rock-forming minerals, especially in the family of layer silicates. He has been able to make synthetic minerals beyond the capabilities of other laboratories, and I became one of his main collaborators. Using the samples that he provided, my research group demonstrated the possibility of developing the first single-mineral geothermometer/oxygen-geobarometer, and we elaborated the crystal-chemistry of layer silicates in unprecedented depth. One of my then students involved in this work is a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), while another went on to become a space-program scientist. The university destroyed hundreds of samples in a dozen solid-solution series of synthetic layer silicates that the NRC wants to study but now cannot. It was probably the most impressive collection of synthetic layer silicates in the world, including many specimens that have never been observed in nature.
My laboratory had a leading expertise in iron oxyhydroxides, which are important in both natural and industrial processes. Our paper on hematite-hydrohematite elucidated the distinct roles of water and hydroxyl groups in that material and is one of the most cited papers in the remote study of Martian soil. The university destroyed all of those samples, including many synthesised at great cost by government laboratories.
I also had a unique and diverse collection of nano-particulate iron oxyhydroxides, synthesized both in my laboratory and by several laboratories in the USA and Europe. These had great value in the study of environmental processes related to the so-called “cycling” of iron and nutrients in both soils and lake and marine sediments. These samples enabled fundamental discoveries by my research group and collaborators, such as proving that the dominant reactive oxyhydoxide in lake and marine sediments is nano-goethite and showing that oxidative cycling in soils increases iron oxyhydroxide crystallinity, thereby decreasing reactivity. Both of these discoveries are highly cited. The samples also allowed my group to develop a new magneto-granulometry method. The university destroyed everything: hematites, geothites, ferrihydrites, magnetites… everything.
My research group led a large study of lake and marine sediments, including sediments from one hundred lakes in the Canadian boreal forest. The boreal forest sediments were collected at large cost by government researchers and shared with me for advanced analytic measurements. Many of our techniques had never been applied to lake sediments. Marine sediments were provided by European scientists. This led to our above-noted “nano-geothite” discovery, and most of our measurements have not yet been published. Some other sediments of industrial and environmental relevance were stored in the frozen state in my laboratory. The university destroyed everything. No new analytic methods will ever be used to probe the sediments.
I also had two large depth-profile suites of “loess-paleosol” samples, one from China and one from Eastern Europe. Such depth-profiles are records of ancient climatic variations in which continuously wind-deposited material alternates between forming dry sandy soil (loess) and rich humid soil (paleosol). They are records of both climate periods and complex soil-formation mechanisms. Our preliminarily published work on a select loess-paleosol couplet proved the promise and utility of our unique analytical methods. We had embarked on a large study of these samples, starting with the Chinese sequence. It is shocking that the university destroyed these impressive and unique samples, collected and catalogued at great cost by collaborators.
My sample collection, housed in a special room, also contained many other specimens, such as various other minerals, industrial samples, environmental samples, synthetic graphite-intercalation compounds, a large collection of standard reference-material environmental samples, and ultra-pure substances. All were summarily destroyed without notice or consultation.
Grievance hearings for a just remediation
January 16, 2019, is the first scheduled date for the labour tribunal to start hearing the grievance for the samples destruction, brought by the APUO against the University of Ottawa. The other hearing dates are scheduled over many months, as set by arbitrator William Kaplan.
The main question submitted at arbitration is:
“Whether the Employer’s decision to unilaterally destroy all of Denis Rancourt’s scientific samples, which was done without informing or consulting him, directly or indirectly, and without his knowledge or consent while he was employed as a Full Professor at the University of Ottawa, was: i. Contrary to the Collective Agreement or to the obligations of the Employer; ii. Unreasonable; iii. Contrary to the requirements of procedural fairness?”
The university not only removed its most successful opponent, able to fill auditoriums with students eager to have and create new courses that generated independent thinking and participatory actions unwanted by the administrators, but also targeted me personally and sabotaged my scientific work.
At the very least, the public institution should explain why it covertly destroyed the large collection of valuable scientific samples. Hopefully, it will be required to pay reparations.
Supplementary Notice of Arbitration - Denis Rancourt (G-17-10), dated September 5, 2017.
Letter of the university to the APUO, June 20, 2017.
Divisional Court for Ontario, filed in Ottawa, File No. 14-2022
“Denis Rancourt arbitration”, Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa, March 10, 2014 (and links therein)
“Did University of Ottawa persecute a professor on its faculty?”, change.org, March 2018 petition (and endnote background links therein).
“DG Rancourt”, Google Scholar profile.
“Statement By Denis Rancourt Regarding His Dismissal By The University Of Ottawa”, ZNET (zcomm.org), April 16, 2009.