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Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis will return to doing neuroscience research on monkeys at a new facility in China. 

Marijan Murat/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Animal rights conflict prompts leading researcher to leave Germany for China

A prominent neuroscientist whose German lab was targeted by animal rights activists is heading to China, where he says he will be freer to pursue his work on macaques and other monkeys. Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, told colleagues last week that the first members of his lab would move in the coming months to a new International Center for Primate Brain Research (ICPBR) in Shanghai, which he will co-direct with neuroscientist Poo Mu-Ming, scientific director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’s Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology. 

Logothetis says he will follow as soon as remaining lab members have finished their projects, likely by late 2020 or early 2021. The Chinese institute is building a new facility in Shanghai’s Songjiang district, which will house as many as 6000 nonhuman primates, including many transgenic monkeys. “Scientifically it’s incredible,” he says. “They have excellent groups working with CRISPR and genetic engineering.” And, he adds, the acceptance of nonhuman primate research by authorities and the public in China is much higher than in Europe. They “know that no other brain (besides that of humans themselves) can be a true help in making progress.”

The move is another sign that China’s investment in neuroscience research, especially involving primates, is paying off, says Stefan Treue, a neuroscientist and director of the German Primate Center. “China has made incredible progress in an unbelievably short period of time. That is the positive side of a political system that is able to move very quickly,” he says. “The combination of political will and necessary resources mean that they have put together an impressive collection of neuroscientists.”

But Logothetis, who studies visual perception, says the lack of support by Max Planck leadership during his encounter with animal rights activists is another major reason for his move. He joined the Institute for Biological Cybernetics as a director in 1996 and for nearly 2 decades worked primarily with macaques, implanting electrodes in their brains. However, in 2014, a German TV program broadcast footage filmed by an undercover animal rights activist who had worked at the lab and claimed animals were being mistreated. Logothetis and his colleagues denied any wrongdoing and said the dramatic video, which showed one animal lame and vomiting and another with blood on its head, was misleading and staged. The TV show led to an official investigation of the lab’s practices, including a police raid on offices at the institute. Logothetis also received death threats. In 2015, citing lack of support from Max Planck leadership and other colleagues, he announced that he would no longer work with macaques, instead shifting his focus to mice.

Initial legal investigations found no violation of animal regulations, but in 2017 a Tübingen prosecutor charged that Logothetis and two colleagues had violated Germany’s animal protection laws by waiting too long to euthanize monkeys that were ill. (Two of the animals recovered after treatment, and a third was euthanized after the researchers decided it would not recover.) In response to the legal proceedings, the Max Planck Society (MPG) removed Logothetis from direct oversight of animal research at the lab.  

In December 2018, all charges against Logothetis and his colleagues were dropped. The next month, MPG lifted all restrictions on his leadership. During the episode, several major neuroscience organizations published open letters that were critical of Max Planck’s handling of the situation, which attracted thousands of signatures.

Logothetis has been in negotiations with Poo since at least 2018, including several trips with nearly two dozen lab members to Shanghai. He says all five group leaders in his department plan to move with him, along with about half of their current lab members. Other international researchers are in discussions about joining ICPBR, he says, including several professors at universities in Germany. “Our current facility can only accommodate a limited number of research groups,” Poo says. “However, in about 2 years, when the [new] facility is completed, we will be more actively recruiting international researchers who are willing to come to Shanghai for long-term research or short-term collaboration.” Ultimately, Poo says, he hopes the center will be like a CERN, the major international physics lab, for primate neurobiology research.

MPG spokesperson Christina Beck says Logothetis informed the society’s leadership in summer 2019 of his plans, but “has not received any information from him personally” about the timing of his move. Beck notes that Logothetis, 69, is already past the standard retirement age for Max Planck scientists. Although he has received a 4-year extension to continue as full director until 2022, MPG directors nearing retirement are “called upon to reduce their staff in the remaining years so that the Institute can realign itself scientifically,” she tells ScienceInsider. Artificial intelligence expert Peter Dayan joined the institute as a new director at the end of 2018, she notes, and “exploratory talks are underway for another appointment at director level.” (Max Planck institutes have multiple directors, who are each in charge of independent departments.)

Logothetis says his age has nothing to do with his decision. “I could have continued for many more years as emeritus,” in Tübingen, he notes. But the opportunities in Shanghai—and the frustrations of the past 5 years—sold him on the move. “I would still consider staying here, continuing with rodents,” he says, while doing primate work with international collaborators. But the widespread German skepticism of animal research and his disappointment with the Max Planck leadership “made this impossible.”

With reporting by Dennis Normile in Shanghai.