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“Max Planck directors have a scientific career behind them, but—to put it bluntly—they haven’t necessarily learned how to lead people,” Jana Lasser says.

Timotheus Hell

Q&A: Doctoral students at Germany’s Max Planck Society say recent troubles highlight need for change

This year, two cases of alleged harassment and bullying have rocked Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Society (MPG), headquartered in Munich. In February, the news magazine Der Spiegel reported allegations against an unidentified researcher, and in June, Buzzfeed identified her as astrophysicist Guinevere Kauffmann at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany. In the other case, Science last week reported on allegations that Tania Singer, director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, created an “atmosphere of fear” at her lab and bullied and denigrated researchers there.

But, “What recent media reports have shown is only the tip of the iceberg,” concludes a position paper released today by PhDnet, a network of the roughly 5000 doctoral students working at the 84 MPG institutes. Early career scientists working within the system face an array of tensions—especially with supervisors—the network says, and the society needs stronger systems for preventing and resolving problems. “We as the representation of [doctoral researchers] see the prevalence of power abuse and the difficulties to solve interpersonal conflicts as a structural problem of the academic system,” the statement says.

Science spoke about the statement with Jana Lasser, a spokesperson for PhDnet and a physicist and doctoral candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen, Germany. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Are you aware of other cases beyond those reported at the institutes in Leipzig and Garching?

A: Nothing of this magnitude. But there are many smaller conflicts: Many researchers who are pressured by supervisors not to take the holidays they have a right to take. Or pressure to publish even though they don’t feel the data is ready.

Q: Are such cases outliers? Or is it a structural problem?

A: It is both. If you look at the large number of early career researchers within the Max Planck Society, I think it’s fair to call these individual cases. On the other hand, there is a systematic problem behind it. The MPG is a wonderful platform for a Ph.D., it opens up a lot of opportunities. But if there is a conflict with the thesis adviser, then that conflict is almost impossible to solve. That is a systematic problem because [the student has] such a strong dependence on just one person and because the mechanisms to report and resolve conflicts partly don’t work. And people are afraid for their careers and so don’t speak up.

Q: Is that a particularly bad problem at MPG?

A: I don’t think so. Our whole research system is built this way. It’s not really different at a university. If you do your Ph.D. with a professor there, you are also completely dependent.

Q: It appears that many people were aware of the two recent cases for a long time. Why does it take years for any action to be taken?

A: On the one hand, you have to ask yourself why people still go [to these laboratories] if [the problems are] so well known. That probably has to do with the scientific excellence [of the laboratories]. People assume that if they do their Ph.D. with this person that is so well-known in his or her field, then that will open up many career opportunities. That even if it means that they are going to suffer for 3 years, they can just get through it and it will be worth it for the future. I think this is hard for the MPG to address. It’s an incredibly difficult problem to solve when one side is afraid to say anything and the other side doesn’t really want to see there is a problem.

Q: The position paper makes a range of suggestions. What needs to change?

A: The main thing is that early career researchers need to feel safe enough in their position to speak up about conflicts early on. That means ending their dependence on just one person, the thesis adviser. One important tool can be the thesis advisory committees. The idea behind that is that more than one person supervises a doctoral candidate’s thesis.

Q: But the society is already using such committees.

A: Yes, but they are not the norm yet. According to a survey we did last year, 54% of doctoral candidates have a thesis advisory committee. We want every Ph.D. student to have a thesis advisory committee. And the people on the committee need to be independent of each other. In Garching, for instance, students did have a thesis advisory committee, but both Kauffmann and her husband were on them. That is not independent.

Q: What else needs to be done?

A: Something we think is extremely important is to train scientists in management and leadership. Science is becoming more international, more collaborative, and groups are becoming larger. Max Planck directors have a scientific career behind them, but—to put it bluntly—they haven’t necessarily learned how to lead people. They need help in doing that. Training in leadership, communication, conflict resolution should be mandatory. It is in many U.S. universities, for instance.

Q: What should happen once a conflict arises?

A: We would like an external committee, independent of the MPG, to be established that can investigate and judge such a conflict. It should include scientific leaders as well as early career researchers, plus people who have experience in conflict resolution: mediators, psychologists, maybe a lawyer. What is important is that the victim of the conflict needs to be in control over what happens, so that nothing happens without their involvement.

Q: What if the committee decides that someone abused their power? What should be the consequences?

A: That should depend on how severe the offense is. The lowest level [consequence] would be mandatory training or coaching, then mandatory co-supervision. I think it’s important to give people a second chance. Reducing the number of people being supervised by someone is definitely a good idea to take pressure off all sides. And if something like this happens again and again, it needs to be an option to bar someone from supervising early career researchers altogether. We have to accept that there are people who are excellent researchers but terrible leaders.

Q: One of the allegations that came up repeatedly in Leipzig was how pregnant women were treated. Is that part of a bigger problem for female researchers at MPG?

A: That is a big problem in science in general. The MPG is already trying very hard [to assist pregnant researchers]. There is a program to give financial assistance for child care. Another program makes sure female scientists who cannot work in the lab because of a pregnancy get an assistant to help with the lab work. But no matter how hard the MPG tries, the insane pressure in science remains. If I am working on a hot issue and two or three other labs are working on the same thing and will publish in the next few months, then I simply cannot afford to be pregnant. The research system as a whole will have to find a way of dealing with the fact that female researchers who are in their most productive phase, as Ph.D. students and postdocs, are also at an age where they may have kids. The MPG cannot solve that issue alone. … The solution is not to shout at people for getting pregnant.