Beleaguered Molecular Lab Buoyed

A financial crisis facing the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, and one of its key outstations has edged closer to resolution. Last week, EMBL's governing council agreed in principle to meet the costs of a multimillion-dollar pay claim by staff members.

EMBL is forced to pay retroactive pay increases because the administrative tribunal of the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO) recently ruled that the lab had violated its own staff guidelines by setting 1995 salaries too low (ScienceNOW, 3 November). But the judgment leaves ambiguous exactly how much money is due in back payments. One interpretation would mandate EMBL to boost 1995 salary levels by an average of 8%. All told, this would amount to a quarter of EMBL's annual core operating budget of about $43 million.

The other interpretation, which EMBL's council and management are fervently hoping will win out, would require an average boost in 1995 levels of only 2.1%. At its meeting, the council agreed to ante up this much while asking the ILO to clarify its ruling. The council also directed EMBL director-general Fotis Kafatos to prepare a contingency plan for its March meeting in the event the ILO tribunal says it must pay 8%.

Concerns over the scientific impact of such payouts have prompted many staff members to accept the 2.1% figure. "This would provide a fair solution to the problem," says molecular biologist Matthias Hentze, who was one of the original complainants before the ILO. At the moment, a slim majority of current staff is in favor of compromising.

Across the channel, EMBL's outstation--the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) near Cambridge, U.K.--has budget worries of its own. These stem from a recent decision by the European Union to stop funding its share of the infrastructure costs for the institute and several other European research facilities (Science, 5 November, p. 1058). Last week, EMBL's council tentatively resolved to cover this looming budget shortfall. In addition, Britain's Medical Research Council has come to EBI's aid with an offer to loan the center stopgap funds.

EMBL and EBI are far from being home free, however. Last week's resolutions will not be implemented before the council's next meeting in March 2000, so that delegates from the lab's 16 member countries can see if their own governments are willing to pony up the additional EMBL funding.