EMBL Faces Huge Bill After Ruling

Scientists at one of the world's leading research centers, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, are in shock after being told last month that an adverse judgment in a salary dispute could wipe out as much as 25% of the lab's core funding and threaten cancellation of its ambitious future plans. A worst-case interpretation of the ruling could lead to the institution shutting down.

The convoluted legal case has its roots in EMBL's status as an international organization. In 1982 the lab adopted the salary scale of a group called the Coordinated Organizations (Co-Org) as a "guide" for salary levels, a decision that was written into its staff regulations. But in 1992 the EMBL council, concerned with the growing costs to the lab of following Co-Org guidelines, began capping salary increases at lower levels.

In 1995, EMBL's staff association challenged this decision. When the council refused to relent, three EMBL scientists and two nonscientific staff members--later joined by many colleagues--filed complaints for back pay with the Geneva-based International Labour Organization (ILO), which arbitrates labor disputes involving international organizations. "The council was wrong in not granting these salary increases," says structural biologist Luis Serrano, chair of the EMBL staff association.

EMBL director-general Fotis Kafatos says that the lab was not obligated, because it never belonged to Co-Org. But on 8 July of this year, the ILO's administrative tribunal ruled in the staff association's favor. The tribunal's order, which cannot be appealed, directs EMBL to implement the Co-Org salary increases for 1995, and in addition to pay employees 10% annual interest since that year on the sums past due.

At a staff meeting last month, Kafatos said that at worst the ruling would require the lab to pay an immediate lump sum of about $11 million, or about a quarter of the $43 million the member states provided EMBL in 1999 for its core operating costs. Even the best-case scenario, in which the lab would not have to fully adjust overall salaries to Co-Org levels, would still mean a $2.7 million bill. In any case, the ruling jeopardizes plans to significantly boost spending at the European Bioinformatics Institute, EMBL's outstation near Cambridge, U.K.

This week the staff association will meet to discuss its options. EMBL employees might agree to spread the back payments over a number of years to soften the blow or to take increased holiday time to compensate partly for the money they are owed.