Leading French Institute Director Ousted

Looking abroad. Disappointed, Pourquié plans to leave France again.

Lola Velasquez/Inserm

A long-running dispute at one of France's leading biology institutes has culminated in the removal of the director. Developmental biologist Olivier Pourquié, who moved from the United States in 2009 to lead the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology (IGBMC) in Strasbourg, was informed last month that his term as director would end on 1 June. The decision to remove Pourquié—taken by the presidents of the institute's funders, CNRS, INSERM, and the University of Strasbourg—follows months of internal rancor, including anonymous e-mails, libel accusations, and attempts to calm the waters with an external mediator.

Pourquié is a highly regarded developmental biologist who was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellow at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City before taking over IGBMC. He says he tried to bring transparency and a modern governance structure to the institute, but was blocked by a subset of researchers at the institute who felt threatened by the changes. Alain Beretz, president of the University of Strasbourg, says that while the decision to remove Pourquié was "very difficult," it was "in the best interest of the institute." The personal enmity that had built up made it impossible for Pourquié to lead effectively, he says.

Pourquié says he is not blameless. "I agree there were some mistakes at the beginning of my mandate." For example, an early decision to change the institute's departmental structure proved very unpopular, he says, as did his request that labs not run deficits. "I wasn't very experienced. But I think we were adapting and moving in the right direction." He points out that in his 2½ years as director, he has helped recruit 11 researchers, four of whom have won grants from the European Research Council (ERC) in a highly competitive process, and the institute also won more than €50 million from France's Investment for the Future program.

"Pourquié is a scientific star. This was why he was chosen," says Iain Mattaj, director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, who is head of IGBMC's scientific advisory board. Mattaj says Pourquié has helped to attract several top young scientists to the institute and to encourage promising new research directions.

At the same time, he notes, "he had no leadership experience and little experience of the French system," and he was tripped up in his attempts to develop a new governance model. (Before Pourquié's arrival, "the director was responsible for everything and there was no system for collective input," says Mattaj.) "The difficulties came from personal incompatibility between Pourquié and some other senior staff that became evident from early on. This created enmity that was implacable—these people did all they could to undermine Pourquié's position and to prevent institutional progress while he was in place."

The attacks became quite personal. On the eve of a meeting of all group leaders to discuss what to do with €20 million in new funding, someone sent an anonymous e-mail to group leaders and other staff members accusing Pourquié of misusing funds. Pourquié has filed a libel lawsuit against the anonymous author and against a group leader who sent an e-mail to the scientific advisory board with what Pourquié says was "defamatory content." At one point a professional mediator was brought in to bring the parties together.

The upheaval has left many institute scientists weary and looking for other jobs, says one researcher who asked not to be named. As to Pourquié, his own ERC grant runs through 2015, and for now he will continue to lead his group at the institute. "But I don't see France for my future. I am looking abroad," he says. "It has been a big disappointment, to move back home and then to be treated like this."

Gilles Laurent, a French neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, worries that the dispute will discourage other researchers from working in France. "What saddens me most is that it supports the criticisms that one often hears about the French scientific system: overly political, centralized, … not favorable to letting people self-organize and prove themselves," he says.

Beretz disagrees. The personal clashes could have happened anywhere, he says. "French science is good. French science is working well. The IGBMC is a very independent institution." He says the institute will undertake an international search for a new director while interim leadership starts putting the new governance structure in place. Mattaj says that will be crucial. "Everyone involved failed to realize" that the institute lacked rules for governing itself, he says. "Putting [that] in place is essential prior to appointing a successor."