The Pasteur Institute — France's most prestigious private biology laboratory — is facing a financial crunch, warns its director-general, Philippe Kourilsky.

The institute, which employs about 2,500 staff studying microbiology and infectious diseases, says that public support for its researchers isn't keeping pace with its expanding activities. Over the past decade, says Kourilsky, income from contracts and patents has risen by about 40% to €45 million (US$56 million) last year. Funds from donations and endowments rose by 70% to almost €60 million. The share of the budget met by public funding has plummeted to less than one-third.

“It's absolutely unfair,” complains Kourilsky. “We do top science, and for every euro the government gives us, we generate two.” The institute's scientific output far exceeds its 3.5% share of the French budget for life sciences, he says.

Kourilsky blames lagging public investment for the institute facing a €24-million shortfall in its €185-million budget for 2003. The institute expects to break even this year thanks to some large contracts — but Kourilsky says that he anticipates deficits in years to come.

The French government has strayed from a tacit agreement that public funding should cover about half of the institute's costs, he says. A science-ministry spokesman says that it is aware of the problem. He says that the government intends to provide “bonus funding” for some of France's top research centres next year.

Charles de Gaulle once likened the now-troubled Pasteur Institute to the Eiffel Tower. Credit: AFP PHOTO/P. KOVARIK

During a previous financial crisis in 1965, Charles de Gaulle, then president of France, came to the institute's aid, saying that it was “as untouchable as the Eiffel Tower”. But institute officials are less optimistic about being bailed out by the current president, Jacques Chirac.