Read our COVID-19 research and news.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," says Christian Bréchot, "but I respect the board's decision." 

Seba/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Pasteur president forced to retire

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" The Beatles once asked. In the case of Christian Bréchot, the 64-year-old president of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, the answer is in: nope. Capping an 8-month crisis at the institute, Pasteur's board of directors has decided not to change the strict age limit for its top job, denying Bréchot the extension he was hoping for.

The decision was taken on 24 January and explained to Pasteur staff yesterday in an internal memo obtained by ScienceInsider. In it, the board announces that Bréchot will step down after his 4-year stint ends on 30 September 2017, and says that the search for a successor is on.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," Bréchot says, "but I respect the board's decision." Nevertheless, he says, the age limit is "ridiculous."

The governing statutes of the foundation that runs Pasteur stipulate that a president must not be older than 64 when he or she is appointed or reappointed to the job. Bréchot, who will turn 65 in July, had hoped that the board would change the rules to make an extension possible. "Four years is very short," he says.

The board made clear it didn't plan to do so last May, citing potential legal and financial complications. But Bréchot enjoys support among Pasteur scientists for making the institute a more attractive place to work, broadening its research scope, and strengthening its international network. A letter signed by the heads of the institute's 11 research departments praised his "leadership, vision, dynamism and full commitment." To protest the board's decision, Pasteur's General Meeting—a parliament-style body with about 100 members that usually meets once a year—rejected the institute’s annual report last June, a move that triggered the board’s dissolution.

The new board had shown itself more sympathetic to Bréchot's wish. During a meeting on 24 January, two-thirds of its members voted for a compromise that would not raise the age limit but would allow the board to extend a president's term by 2 years, a Pasteur spokesperson says. That still fell short of the 75% majority needed to change the statutes, however.

The compromise was "an intelligent solution," says Bréchot, if only because it would have allowed more time to search for a successor. While heartened by the support at last year’s General Meeting, Bréchot says he does not expect another uprising at the next such gathering, slated for June. "Nobody wants that to happen again," he says.