Max Planck astrophysicist at centre of bullying allegations speaks up

Top German institute plans to release results of a survey that will shed light on bullying issues.

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Aerial view of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics

The Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany. Credit: Ghost writ0r via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

A long-standing saga centring on allegations of bullying at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) in Garching, Germany, is coming to a head. The scientist at the centre of the allegations has for the first time spoken out to defend herself. And the institute — which is funded by the Max Planck Society, one of the world’s wealthiest and most prestigious research organizations — is stepping up its response. Next week, it plans to present the results of a survey that should reveal whether bullying is still going on following measures taken to address it.

The allegations first surfaced publicly in an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel in February, which detailed accusations of bullying of graduate students and postdocs by a director at an unnamed Max Planck institute in Bavaria. A news report by BuzzFeed Germany, published on 27 June, then named the accused director as astrophysicist Guinevere Kauffmann, and added further details — including allegations of racist comments.

Now Kauffmann has corresponded with Nature to explain the alleged behaviour. “I am not a racist. I am half Chinese and half German-Jewish,” she writes. She adds: “Because of my mixed-race background, I am very interested in cultural differences between people and I regret very much that my comments have been taken out of context and distorted.”

“Regarding ‘bullying’ — I am of the generation that was subjected to very high pressure supervision. I realize that this has now become unacceptable,” she writes. “I believe I have modified my behaviour very substantially in the last 18 months since the complaints were made.”

One MPA graduate student who spoke to Nature on the condition of anonymity said that bullying had been a major disruptive force at the institute, causing, in their opinion, at least two young researchers to leave their positions prematurely.

Kauffmann says: “Our procedures for evaluating graduate students and providing honest feedback are still not uniform enough, in my opinion. Approaches vary greatly, from ‘keep quiet if the student is not doing well and let him/her sink in the exam or job market’, to ‘attempt to steer towards a successful career with all your strength’. I believe I fall into the latter category. Nobody I had trouble with ended up quitting astronomy.”

Measures for improvement

The MPA leadership first learnt of the bullying allegations in 2016, when the institute’s external scientific advisory board described a complaint it had received from young scientists, says Eiichiro Komatsu, a director at the MPA. Komatsu, who was the MPA’s managing director at the time, says that he and his colleagues responded to the complaint immediately, and provided coaching for Kauffmann, who also agreed to daily monitoring.

But the earlier media reports say that the bullying was going on many years before that, and had been reported to the institute’s internal ombudsman.

Software engineer Andressa Jendreieck, who was a graduate student at the MPA between 2011 and 2014, told Nature that for many years, young researchers there were afraid to make complaints, in particular because they believed that there was no independent person they could turn to.

When the scientific advisory board reported allegations of bullying to the MPA leadership, the board noted that “at present there is no effective mechanism for individuals at the MPA to file formal complaints to the Max Planck Society if they have been treated inappropriately by other members of the institute”, says Komatsu.

The BuzzFeed article reports that Kauffmann, who is still supervising young researchers, has not improved her conduct towards students. Kauffmann disputes this: “I have not been made aware of allegations that my behaviour is still offensive,” she writes. “It would be best if the people who are unhappy talk to me directly rather than to journalists, otherwise I cannot fix any problems.”

She adds: “I am constantly monitoring my style of communication and trying to make improvements.”

To help resolve the issues, the MPA’s works council has been carrying out an anonymous survey of young scientists, says Komatsu. This will determine whether inappropriate behaviour is continuing at the institute, he says. The council is due to present its results at the institute’s all-staff meeting on 13 July.

Komatsu told Nature that, in his opinion, under the measures put in place since 2016, the situation has steadily improved. “However, it is still too early to tell whether all problems have disappeared,” he says. “We still closely monitor the improvements.” In addition, he says, the institute is working on a new code of conduct, and “making sure points of contact for expressing concerns are easy to find.”

Independent mediator

Christina Beck, press officer at the Max Planck Society, which funds 84 independent research institutes and facilities including the MPA, told Nature that the MPA had taken appropriate and timely measures to address the situation. But if the survey confirms that the bullying is continuing, this means that the society’s system for dealing with complaints has failed, she says.

If that is the case, the society will hire an independent law firm with experience in mediation, Beck says. Scientists will be able to bring their allegations to the firm in full confidentiality and the firm will investigate them and report its conclusions to the MPA leadership. “We are taking the issue very seriously,” she says.

The anonymous graduate student who spoke to Nature said that those affected would probably engage with the process offered by a law firm in that eventuality. But the student also noted that disciplinary measures would remain in the hands of the Max Planck leadership ― and that, in their opinion, confidence in the leadership has slipped because its responses in 2016 came too late, and were not tough enough.

The allegations at the MPA come in the wake of separate complaints by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics about the way the society is handling animal-welfare charges brought by activists against a leading neuroscientist there who was indicted in February. Scientists at the institute say the society is failing to defend them against attempts to disrupt their research.

Beck says that the institutes are independent of the society’s general management, which only advises the institutes’ leaderships and checks administrative procedures.

Nature 559, 159-160 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05634-8
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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 06 July 2018: An earlier version of this story described the all-staff meeting as being annual. The meeting is, in fact, more frequent.