Mass Exodus Roils Brazilian Neuroscience Institute

A rebellion in the scientific ranks has created some recent turmoil at Brazil's most famous brain research center, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (ELS-IINN). Since late July, 10 principal investigators have shut down their labs at the center, which opened its doors in 2005 under the direction of Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis. An ambitious scheme to build a world-class neuroscience institute in the country's impoverished northeastern region, ELS-IINN has garnered praise for its socially conscious mission to foster economic development and has been cited as an example of Brazil's burgeoning research enterprise.

The defectors include one of the institute's co-founders, Sidarta Ribeiro, a former postdoctoral fellow with Nicolelis. In total more than 100 people have walked out, Ribeiro says, including students, postdocs, and technicians. Frustrated by what they describe as management problems that hampered access to equipment and facilities, the group decided to form their own institute, to be directed by Ribeiro at the nearby Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, which will fund the endeavor. Previously, the researchers all had appointments at the Federal University, which paid their salaries and part of their operational costs, but maintained laboratories at ELS-IINN. That situation became untenable, Ribeiro says, because of disagreements over how to manage the facilities. The new institute is funded by the university, with resources from the Ministry of Education.

One issue was that decisions that affected the day-to-day running of the labs often had to go through the private foundation in São Paulo that administers ELS-IINN, or through Nicolelis, who runs a lab at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "We believe that local problems need to be solved by local scientists," Ribeiro says.

"It's unfortunate, but it's their decision," Nicolelis says. He notes that those who left are mostly young Brazilian scientists who trained at public institutions in the United States and Europe. "They're not used to doing science in a private institute with regulations and norms. As a nonprofit organization in Brazil, we have to follow a lot of regulations," Nicolelis says. He defends the rules that the defectors found onerous, saying that compliance is required by the various government ministries that allow the institute to operate. In exchange, recruits to ELS-IINN got 70% of their operational costs paid with private funds, access to equipment and technical support, plus R$500,000 (about $315,000) in start-up funds for their labs, an unheard of perk in Brazil, Nicolelis says. "They were receiving things that no one in Brazil has ever received."

Nicolelis insists the departures will not have a serious impact on ELS-IINN. The institute's core focus is on systems and translational neuroscience, including developing treatments for Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries, and most of those who left did research in other areas. Nicolelis says seven principal investigators remain at IINN, and the institute is actively recruiting five more.