Pasteur head may lose job

January 14, 2005

The head of France's prestigious Institut Pasteur has put his job on the line amid growing protests from scientists employed at the medical research centre.

A vote of confidence in Philippe Kourilsky by the institute's general assembly this month will either confirm him as director-general or kick-start the process to appoint his successor.

Causes of the crisis include budget deficits; plans to relocate some units to a new site outside Paris; liberalisation reforms introduced too quickly; and alleged management bullying tactics.

The institute is a state-supported private medical research foundation that was founded in 1887 by Louis Pasteur. Its workforce numbers 2,500 and in 2004 it had a budget of E186 million (£131 million).

Mr Kourilsky, who started working for the institute in 1972 and is a professor of the College de France, became director-general in 2000. He started a modernisation programme, which initially met with approval. It updated technological facilities, encouraged young research teams and reorganised departments.

But other reforms were more controversial, such as merit considerations superseding those of length of service and changes in evaluation processes.

Relations soured between management and a growing number of researchers.

A new conflict arose last summer when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer donated a site in Fresnes, a few kilometres outside Paris, to Pasteur. For the management, this was an opportunity to move some functions out of the historic but cramped campus in Paris. According to opponents, it was an opportunity for managers to banish dissidents and refocus activities on applied research to service the interests of the pharmaceutical industry.

Sir John Skehel, director of Britain's National Institute of Medical Research, is acting as mediator, and is due to present a report into the implications of a relocation at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, matters have continued to deteriorate. In June, the Assemblee des Cent - the institute's general assembly - refused for the first time to approve the governing council's annual administrative and financial report, leading protesters to demand the resignation of chairman Michel Bon, a former head of France Telecom.

An anonymous message posted on the website of action group Sauvons la Recherche! alleges "Pastoriens" are "harassed by an obstructive, incompetent bureaucracy and shameful, counterproductive techniques of staff management - disinformation, manipulation, intimidation, administrative punishments, fabricated professional errors, unwarranted (forced) retirements and threats of relocation".

In December, hundreds of protesters demonstrated during a council meeting.

The council agreed to convene the Assemblee des Cent as soon as possible to decide the future of Mr Kourilsky.
* A year after 156 researchers launched Sauvons la Recherche! to protest against government cuts in funding, the group's representative Alain Trautmann has told Le Monde that "the research situation is less serious, but it remains worrying".

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