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Deficit dooms Swedish gene institute

Researchers face cutbacks and lay-offs.

Cost overruns have sliced into the historically important biology programme of Sweden's Lund University, culminating in a departmental reorganization that has some scientists fuming.

The Institute of Genetics, where in the winter of 1955–56 the correct number of human chromosomes was established (J. H. Tjio & A. Levan Hereditas 42, 1–6; 1956), is being disbanded and four researchers laid off in a bitter reshuffle.

"Some researchers feel they can't afford to be nice to their colleagues," says Sven-Axel Bengtson, who directs the university's 274-year-old Museum of Zoology. "When food is scarce, the horses will bite."

Úlfur Árnason will lose his office.

Acrimony peaked last week, when an emeritus professor was notified that he would lose his office by 30 June. Úlfur Árnason, who has been associated with the university for more than 50 years, was told he was to be ejected shortly after he sent a lengthy critique on the biology reorganization to the university's top executive, rector Per Eriksson. Árnason was among the few who openly questioned the proposal, contending it would undermine science at the university, reduce enrolment and cause revenue to drop further. He also noted that the vision group directed by zoologist Dan-Eric Nilsson, ranked 'outstanding' in a 2003 external review, was being cut, whereas a plant-research group criticized in the same review as being without focus was left largely untouched. Susanne Widell, who leads the plant group, is directing the biology reorganization; she did not respond to an interview request.

Árnason became an emeritus professor four years ago, as Swedish researchers do at age 67. Typically, such professors are permitted a university office if they continue research, as Árnason does. He is fighting the ousting. "This is very extraordinary, to be expelled from the faculty," he says.

"It is quite astonishing," agrees Lennart Ståhle, a senior adviser at the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education in Stockholm.

This is very extraordinary, to be expelled from the faculty.

At its peak, the genetics institute was home to about 80 researchers. The two dozen researchers there now will be reposted elsewhere within the university, and the existing genetics labs largely turned into offices.

University officials and researchers say that the reorganization was brought on by a series of compounding problems, many of which other universities also face, Ståhle says. At Lund, officials say, too many young researchers were kept on without outside funding to support them. The annual budget deficit of the Department of Cell and Organism Biology, which oversees the genetics institute, has been ballooning over the past couple of years, increasing by up to 100,000 Swedish kronor (US$12,500) a week, and is expected to hit 19 million kronor by year-end.

The science faculty board has approved a 10-million-kronor subsidy, which, combined with staff reductions, is intended to eliminate the deficit in three years.

Ecologist Torbjörn von Schantz, dean of the science faculty, said he "deeply regretted" the "tragic" cuts in staff, which he acknowledged will reduce future graduate-student admissions. But he added that the steps are necessary to save money. "We see the restructuring of biology in Lund as a key to addressing new areas of research," he says.

However, several other professors privately questioned whether students would want to come to a department in turmoil.

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Dalton, R. Deficit dooms Swedish gene institute. Nature 459, 1040–1041 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/4591040b

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