Viennese lab renovations stall as cash goes unspent

Ethology institute hamstrung as half the annual budget is returned.


One of Europe's few institutes for the study of birds and animal behaviour is being hamstrung, some members of its board complain, as hundreds of thousands of euros meant for its refurbishment are going unspent.

Plans to bring the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology in Vienna into the twenty-first century have been around for five years. But critics say that promised, and much-needed, investment in new staff, facilities and research has stagnated since 2002, when Dustin Penn, a behavioural biologist formerly at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, took over as director.

Penn promised the Austrian Academy of Sciences, which runs the institute, that he would introduce cutting-edge genetic research, while building on traditional strengths such as ornithology.

But members of the institute's board say they have become increasingly concerned about the slow pace of change. Nature has seen a copy of the annual report, which shows that in the past two years Penn has returned around half of the institute's €1.3 million (US$1.7 million) annual budget unspent. But Nature was unable to confirm these numbers with the academy, which, even though its work is funded by the taxpayer, says these records are confidential.

Critics claim that Penn has spent most of his time managing a $4-million project to investigate the genetic basis of human odour, funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. They add that this project, carried out mainly in the United States and Britain, leaves Penn little time for the institute.

“If he is overstretched, the best solution would be for him to let someone else manage the institute,” says board member John Dittami, head of the ethology department at the University of Vienna.

Cornered: critics say lab head Dustin Penn is overstretched. Credit: Q. SCHIERMEIER

Penn denies that his workload is unmanageable. “I spend a tremendous amount of my time running the Konrad Lorenz institute, supervising postdocs and negotiating with the academy,” he says. “I am working overtime to get everything done.”

But progress at the institute has stalled. Some of the draughty, low-ceilinged wooden buildings — a hangover from the Second World War barracks from which the institute was formed — do not meet modern research requirements. Some facilities are in desperate need of repair, including a leaking diving tank used to study fish. And although a small genetics lab has been installed, along with a temporary facility for housing mice, the planned expansion of genetics research has not yet come to fruition.

Penn blames unforeseen architectural problems and lack of permission from the Viennese planning authorities for the delay. “I have budgeted money for new equipment, but we couldn't buy everything that we planned simply because there's nowhere we could put it,” he says.

The institute's board is set to meet this autumn to discuss the problems. But neither the board nor the academy would reveal to Nature exactly when an external review will take place. Georg Stingl, the academy secretary in charge of mathematics and natural sciences, says the evaluation might be “this or next year”.

Additional reporting by Alison Abbott.


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Schiermeier, Q. Viennese lab renovations stall as cash goes unspent. Nature 434, 550 (2005).

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