Published online 7 September 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.888
Updated online: 13 October 2009

News

Nobelist's brain institute wins reprieve

Court prevents host from pulling the plug on cash-strapped Italian research lab.

A civil court in Rome has ordered the Santa Lucia Foundation not to shut off any more amenities to an institute founded by centenarian Nobel laureate Rita Levi-Montalcini — for the moment, at least.

The foundation had planned to cut off supplies of carbon dioxide and compressed air, essential for tissue culture, today, and disconnect all electricity from the European Brain Research Institute (EBRI) by the end of the month. But now the injunction forces it to hold off.

The judge requested on Saturday that the foundation try to reach an agreement with EBRI before a second hearing on 23 September.

The institute began work in Rome in 2005 after a competition to identify a host. It was intended to bypass Italy's sluggish bureaucracy and create the sort of scientifically competitive environment rare in life sciences in the country.

“EBRI has unfortunately never made payments on time.”

Luigi Amadio
Santa Lucia Foundation

The Santa Lucia Foundation, which also runs a private hospital in Rome, won the competition, in part by offering 10 years' rent-free accommodation in a new building. EBRI, now home to 28 research groups, is required only to pay expenses — around €500,000 per year.

Levi-Montalcini's 100th birthday earlier this year was marked with national celebrations in Italy. But EBRI has not won the political support that she anticipated and has struggled financially.

Now the foundation wants to terminate the contract. Its director general, Luigi Amadio, requested advance payment of this year's expenses instead of retrospective payment. EBRI objected at first, but completed payments by July.

The foundation nonetheless proclaimed EBRI "not financially sustainable". During July it cut off telephones, stopped cleaning contracts and severed electricity connections to rooms containing –80 °C freezers.

Amadio says that in the past couple of years, "EBRI has unfortunately never made payments on time".

Empty promises?

When the affair became public last week, research minister Mariastella Gelmini declared her intention to find a solution. Gelmini had promised the institution a gift of €500,000 during Levi-Montalcini's birthday celebrations, but this has not yet materialized.

“This all happened very suddenly and has left people confused.”

Alberto Bacci
European Brain Research Institute

Amadio says that the Santa Lucia Foundation has received at least €50 million less than it was entitled to in reimbursement from the region of Lazio, which includes Rome, for the clinical activities of its hospital in recent years, and this is why it has to cut costs. "If this problem were to be resolved positively, the foundation could re-examine a possible new agreement with EBRI," he says.

But the regional president of Lazio, Piero Marrazzo, says that the foundation has received all it is due, and that it should not mix issues relating to hospital financing with its research activities. Marrazzo has also offered general support to EBRI and says he is prepared to help negotiate a solution.

Scientists at the institute are meanwhile treading water. Neuroscientist Alberto Bacci, who won one of the first European Research Council large and prestigious Starting Independent Researchers Grants in 2007, says he trusts that a solution will be found but admits that things are not easy.

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"This all happened very suddenly and has left people confused," he told Nature. "But I am trying to carry on working and to keep morale high."

"All the parties will meet this week in the research ministry to try to work things out," says Piergiorgio Strata, the science director of EBRI. "There was no reason to evict us on short notice like this."

In the meantime, the region of Piedmont and the University of Turin have offered to host EBRI if it should lose its home, says Strata, himself a professor at the university. 

Updated:

The court today decided that the Santa Lucia Foundation was wrong to cut off services, or threaten to cut them off, to EBRI. The foundation has also been ordered to pay €7,000 in costs and damages to the institute.

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