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Self-inflicted damage

A Correction to this article was published on 27 January 2010

This article has been updated

The autocratic actions of an institute's founder could destroy a centre of excellence for brain research.

The 2002 launch of the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) in Rome was a joyous occasion. Spearheaded by Italy's Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel laureate, the EBRI was intended to be a haven from the bureaucracy and cronyism that suffocates Italy's public research system. It would operate solely on the basis of research excellence, not the administrators' personal interests, and appointments would not be for life. It would be a unique opportunity to create an institution of truly international stature in Italy.

Enthused by that prospect, high-ranking scientists from across Europe agreed to join the EBRI's board of directors. Its International Science Council includes no fewer than three Nobel laureates. And with the guidance of these groups, the EBRI has blossomed.

If the changes go through, the international loss of goodwill towards the institute may be irreversible.

But now the institute may be disintegrating. The EBRI has always had to scratch around for funding, but a spectacular and potentially lethal blow has just been delivered by Levi-Montalcini herself.

Levi-Montalcini, who will be 101 this year, is the EBRI's president. In November, she began unilateral procedures to sack the EBRI's board of directors and to substitute a commissioner, whom she would appoint.

The move has left board members aghast and angry. They say that it is actually against the EBRI's own by-laws. Certainly the formal and informal reasons Levi-Montalcini has given for her action are unconvincing. For example, she maintains that foreign board members could not be expected to follow important discussions or documents in Italian. But international scientific institutions routinely conduct their high-level business meetings in English, the international language of science, and translate documents as necessary.

Levi-Montalcini has also referred to board members' supposed unreliability when it comes to attending meetings — a charge that has caused deep offence among hard-working and enthusiastic members who say that they have had to rise before dawn on many occasions to join meetings called at short notice.

There has been one clear-cut dispute with a board member: Luigi Amadio, the director of the Santa Lucia Foundation, which owns the building in which the EBRI is housed on a rent-free basis. Amadio cut off amenities to EBRI scientists in a dispute over alleged late payment of bills last year (see Nature doi:10.1038/news.2009.888; 2009). But this argument hardly applies to the whole board.

Whatever Levi-Montalcini's motivation, if her changes to the EBRI's governance go through, as seems likely, then the international loss of goodwill towards the institute may be irreversible. The outraged science council members are already discussing possible resignation.

The demise of the EBRI would be a huge disappointment for the talented young researchers who work there, one of whom recently won a highly prestigious grant from the European Research Council. It would also be disappointing for Italy, whose none-too-good scientific image can do without being sullied further. And it would be a tragedy for the much-loved and much-respected Levi-Montalcini herself, who has done so much for science in her long life (see Nature 458, 564–567; 2009), and who now risks losing the goodwill of some of the world's best neuroscientists who have supported her.

The only remaining hope is that the Prefect of Rome, the local official who must approve the change, will reject her arguments. Levi-Montalcini needs to allow the board of directors to continue meeting and to sort out with those directors whatever concerns she has in a formal and open way. She would be better served by heeding advice from this board than by acting on the impulses that are moving her now.

Change history

  • 21 January 2010

    Correction: This Editorial incorrectly states that Rita Levi-Montalcini intends to appoint a new commissioner at the European Brain Research Institute in Rome. In fact, if her plans go ahead, the appointment would be made by the local prefecture. In addition, it speaks of Italy's "none-too-good scientific image". This was meant to refer to the nation's image problem in terms of reliability as a scientific partner; it was not intended to call into question Italy's scientific skills and ability.

  • 27 January 2010

    The Editorial 'Self-inflicted damage' ( Nature 463, 270; 2010) incorrectly stated that Rita Levi-Montalcini intends to appoint a new commissioner at the European Brain Research Institute in Rome. In fact, if her plans go ahead, the appointment would be made by the local prefecture. In addition, the Editorial spoke of Italy's "none-too-good scientific image".

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Self-inflicted damage. Nature 463, 270 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/463270a

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