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Pasteur Problems Cause Mass Resignation

13 January 2005 (All day)
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PARIS--A long-running, intense battle between research staff and top management at France's premiere biomedical research institute exploded last night when almost the entire board of directors of the Pasteur Institute decided to resign. Although the move was a dramatic attempt to clear the air, some scientists expect the battle to continue.

The Pasteur Institute has been roiled for the past year by the actions of its president, Philippe Kourilsky. A system of evaluations intended to revitalize the institute has been heavy-handed and harsh, say critics. Even more controversial was Kourilksy's plan, still pending, to move parts of the lab to a building donated by drug company Pfizer in the southern suburb of Fresnes, while Pasteur's aging Parisian campus is renovated. Researchers dislike the new location and the process by which research units were selected. The criticism targeted not just Kourilsky but also the board of directors--a governing body of 20 members, 14 of them from outside the institute--that appointed him.

Anonymous criticism and complaints have proliferated via web sites and e-mail, and last month almost 500 scientists demonstrated outside a meeting of the board of directors, demanding the resignation of Kourilsky and the board's chairman, former France Telecom CEO Michel Bon.

Pasteur issued a terse statement today announcing the mass resignation without further explanation. But one member of the board who requested anonymity says the idea was to "help clear the air" by giving the institute a chance to choose a new board more to their liking. As always, the new board will be elected by the institute's General Meeting, a parliament-style body of about 100 members that will meet on 15 March. (Four statutory members of the board of directors, however, such as the directors of the research agencies CNRS and INSERM, will remain.)

Whether peace will return to Pasteur's famed labs is questionable, however. Kourilsky remains, notes one lab chief who also asked not to be named and who predicted intense politicking for the 16 open seats. Already, the crisis has had a major impact, says Antoine Danchin, chief of Pasteur's Genetics of Bacterial Genomes Unit, and one of the directors who decided to step down yesterday. "People are no longer working. Everybody is upset," Danchin says. "It's very bad for Pasteur."

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