Christian Bréchot

Christian Bréchot says the discussion “goes beyond me as a person.”

Seba/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Dispute over president's age tears Pasteur Institute apart

Is 65 too old to stay at the helm of a major research center? That question is sowing division at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Science has learned, and has plunged the 128-year-old institute, home to 1200 scientists and the place where HIV was first isolated, into a leadership crisis. At the center is Christian Bréchot, a physician and viral hepatitis specialist whose first 4-year term as Pasteur president will end on 1 October 2017.

Bréchot, who previously led INSERM, the French biomedical research agency, aspires to a second term, but he will turn 65 in July 2017. Under the governing statutes of the foundation that runs the Paris center, that disqualifies him for the renewal, Pasteur’s 21-strong board of directors has concluded. Angered by the board’s refusal to change the rules, Pasteur’s General Meeting, a parliament-style governing body, dissolved the board in June. Now, Bréchot’s future is in limbo.

Bréchot’s supporters say that the age limit is outdated and that the institute needs him to finish reforms set in motion in 2014. “If we have to find another director, it may crush the momentum,” says Pasteur structural biologist and General Meeting member Félix Rey. Bréchot’s reforms include efforts to help Pasteur and its sister institutes around the world share and analyze data, as well as a plan to update the Paris lab’s forays into fields such as bioinformatics and electron microscopy, Rey says. Bréchot says he also tried to make Pasteur’s salaries and career prospects more attractive to top researchers.

Louis Pasteur himself headed the institute he founded until his death at 72 in 1895. But today, Article 12 of the statutes of the Pasteur Foundation says that “at the time of his or her nomination or of the renewal of his or her mandate, the president must not have reached the age of 65.” In May, after the board signaled in a statement that it would enforce Article 12, several Pasteur scientists sent letters expressing their support for Bréchot and urging the board to raise the age limit. Among them was a note signed by the heads of the Paris institute’s 11 research departments that praised Bréchot for his “leadership, vision, dynamism and full commitment.”

The board, which includes six Pasteur scientists, would not budge. Changing Article 12 would be a lengthy affair that requires government involvement and could lead to a complete review of the foundation’s statutes to align them with those of other French foundations, says board chair Rose-Marie Van Lerberghe. That could damage Pasteur, she adds: For example, Bréchot earns a sizable salary but typical foundation statutes require an unpaid president, which would make it difficult to recruit a top candidate. Changing the statutes could also mean that the institute loses favorable fiscal provisions. A 3 June email to Pasteur staff explaining the board’s decision included a legal review by an expert in French foundation law to back up the decision.

The explanation didn’t satisfy Pasteur’s General Meeting, which provides checks and balances for the board and president. It includes elected representatives of staff, directors of Pasteur Institutes abroad, appointed members from universities and government bodies, as well as other outside members. On 21 June, 60 out of 101 General Meeting members rejected the board’s annual report, in a secret ballot—a show of dissent that automatically triggered the board’s dissolution. (Of the assembly’s 36 staff representatives, 32 had already signed a letter of support to Bréchot on 9 May.)

The General Meeting did not aim to create mayhem, says Antoine Talarmin, head of the Pasteur Institute Guadeloupe in Point-à-Pitre and an assembly member, but it wanted to send a strong statement supporting a second term for Bréchot and express its mistrust of the board. “Pasteurians will not be pushed around,” Talarmin says. “It is ridiculous that this issue has taken on such proportions at a time when many politicians think it is time to raise the legal age of retirement.”

Some suspected that the board was using the age limit as an excuse to get rid of Bréchot, Talarmin says. Not true, says Van Lerberghe, who points out that she was part of the search committee that picked Bréchot, worked well with him, supported his plans, and sought ways to retain him. “But the law is the law, even when it’s just about a 3-month difference,” she says.

Bréchot, however, does have detractors. One research leader at Pasteur who’s also a General Meeting member says it’s time for Bréchot to move on. He is “arrogant” and has created a climate of fear among staff, says this scientist, who asked not to be named: “He will never have my vote to stay.” Bréchot says you can’t be loved by everyone if you’re reforming an institute and admits that the situation is tense. “A few people think I’ve manipulated [scientists on] campus or solicited the letters of support myself,” he says. “But this discussion goes beyond me as a person.”

Bréchot’s supporters hope that the next board will change Article 12, but Van Lerberghe warns that this won’t be easy. Until a new board is formed in October, the outgoing members and Bréchot can only conduct routine business. Meanwhile, Pasteur’s research goes on as usual, Bréchot says. There have been other crises in Pasteur’s long history, Rey adds. “I’m very confident. We have always emerged stronger from them.”