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  • Staff dispute prompts closure of top Chilean institute

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[SANTIAGO] The Chilean government has withdrawn funding from one of three prestigious 'millennium institutes' set up as centres of research excellence with the backing of the World Bank.

The decision to close the internationally recognised Millennium Institute of Cellular Biology and Biotechnology (CBB) was taken in the light of a dispute between the director of the institute, Ricardo Maccioni, and leading members of his research staff.

The government has decided not to provide the institute with a second five-year grant of US$5 million, which was to follow the initial grant of US$5 million provided in 1999 with the intention that the institute should operate for a ten-year period.

The government's decision has been strongly attacked by several leading international scientists, who have been acting as advisors to the institute.

In a letter published in Science on 6 May, they wrote that the interruption of CBB activities "would be a distressing sign to the international scientific community and would cast doubt on the stability of long-term scientific cooperation with Chile".

However, the Chilean government itself says the decision to close the CBB was taken as the result of the institute's failure to meet the necessary conditions for an extension of its grant.

The CBB was one of three institutes established by the Chilean government in 1999 through the Ministry of Planning and Cooperation (Mideplan) with the support of the World-Bank funded Millennium Science Initiative (MSI).

The goal of the initiative has been to use the institutes, as well as eight associated 'science nuclei', to allow some of Chile's top scientists to carry out world-class scientific research in a well-funded environment.

Each institute received an initial US$5 million for a five-year period, on the understanding that this would be extended for a further five years following the successful outcome of an evaluation of its operation and performance.

During its five years of operation, the CBB established an impressive record of cutting-edge research in fields such as neurodegenerative diseases, cellular ageing, gene therapy, and protein biotechnology. Its seven research groups published more than 200 scientific papers and trained some 25 doctoral researchers.

However, three years ago the relationship between Maccioni, a prominent neuroscientist, and the original team of six senior researchers broke down over disagreements about Maccioni's management of the institute, as well over the way he was allocating research funds.

At one point, relations between the two sides became so bad that the six researchers — whose concerns about management weaknesses were supported by an investigation carried out by Mideplan — demanded Maccioni's resignation.

Following the Mideplan inquiry, Maccioni was no longer allowed to be the only signatory on cheques, and was required to obtain the agreement of the other scientists before hiring staff.

But Maccioni refused to resign — even though at the time, say the other scientists, he briefly agreed to do so. Maccioni claims that the financial accusations against him were a 'plot' to discredit him, and that the audit had confirmed this.

In his application for the renewed funding, Maccioni — following the recommendation of the institute's external advisory panel — proposed that it should be spent on neuroscience research, "as a way to make a major impact and excel internationally in this promising field".

To implement such a research programme, he proposed recruiting a new staff of five senior scientists. But the proposed change in direction was rejected both by the Millennium Science Initiative's programme committee and by its board of directors.

The six CBB staff scientists — lead by Juan Alfonso Asenjo, a leading Chilean biotechnologist and winner of the country's National Sciences Award 2004 — subsequently applied independently for support to continue with the research that had been successfully pursued during the first five years.

However their application was ruled ineligible as it did not have the backing of the director, as required by MSI rules.

Faced with two conflicting proposals, Mideplan decided to reject both, and invited bids to set up a new institute with the funds originally been intended for the CBB.

Yasna Provoste, secretary of Mideplan and chair of the MSI board of directors, said in an interview with the newspaper El Mercurio earlier this year that the CBB would only have received the new funding if it had stuck to both its original line of research and the original research team. "Maccioni did not meet either requirement," she said.

Claudio Wernli, the executive director of the MSI, emphasises that the programme committee that carried out the evaluation of the institute was made up of eight prominent foreign scientists coordinated by mathematician Phillip A. Griffiths, former director of the Institute for Advanced Study, at Princeton University, United States.

"On this occasion, as well as in the last two contests, the board of directors has entirely accepted the recommendation of the programme committee, based on a careful and exhaustive analysis," says Wernli. "Their decision was made purely on a technical basis."

Maccioni, however, says he has yet to receive official confirmation of why his application was rejected.

The bidding process for a new institute closed last week, and the results will be announced in November, with the new institute starting operation in January 2006.

Several research groups have applied, including some of the smaller 'scientific nuclei' already supported by the MSI, which are keen to grow larger.

One of the bids comes from some of the former senior scientists at CBB, who have revised their own proposals. Maccioni's research team is not taking part.

Meanwhile, Maccioni says that he is taking legal action against Mideplan, arguing that their decision not to support his proposal for renewed funding for the CBB was illegal, and that the ministry did not followed contest rules.

Maccioni, who claims that his proposals were blocked for political, rather than scientific, reasons, says he is currently waiting for the result of an investigation into Mideplan's decision not to extent his funding.

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