Dismissed researcher wins court battle

German immunologist set to regain his job.

One of Germany's largest research centres was wrong to dismiss without notice one of its institute directors, a court in Munich has ruled.

The German Research Centre for Environmental Health in Munich had claimed that the dismissed scientist, immunologist Jean-Marie Buerstedde, was aggressive with colleagues and failed to nurture "relationships based on trust and respect" with students in his charge.

The centre provided the court with a long list of incidents involving Buerstedde, which describe him shouting insults, displaying insensitivity to students' personal difficulties, and forcing colleagues to work long hours and weekends. Doctoral students who complained about Buerstedde say that they were sometimes reduced to tears.

Speaking before the court ruling, Norbert Blum, the centre's chief financial officer, said: "We have special rules to protect young scientists, and Buerstedde broke them seriously."

Buerstedde says that his style of working was needed to remain at the forefront of the competitive field of antibody hypermutation. He brought a case of unfair dismissal against the centre after he was sacked without warning on 4 June 2008. He says that he was told to clear his desk and forbidden to enter the centre's grounds. His access to professional e-mail was cut off, he claims, making it difficult for him to complete research projects.

Blum insists that the centre had no intention of preventing Buerstedde finishing projects, adding that it had been "necessary to remove him from the scene so there would be no confrontation". He said that the centre's board had been "shocked by the extent of the problems caused by [Buerstedde]".

But the court ruled that the charges were not sufficiently well documented to assess the damage done by Buerstedde's alleged behaviour. It added that most of the charges did not justify dismissal without the normal warnings and meetings, and that the number of complaints alone was insufficient to dismiss Buerstedde without notice.

The centre said that owing to staff absences, it could not comment on the ruling before Nature went to press. Unless the centre appeals the decision before the end of April, Buerstedde expects to return to work.

Buerstedde admits that he can be impatient, but says that many enjoy working with him. One colleague told Nature that Buerstedde needed to learn to hold his tongue, but that he was appalled at the peremptory dismissal. "I didn't think it was possible in a country like Germany that someone could be dismissed without being given a chance to hear the charges or defend himself against them," said the colleague, who did not wish to be identified.

Some of Buerstedde's external collaborators have also expressed dismay in open letters. "I was truly shocked that you … have been fired so abruptly," wrote David Schatz, an immunologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. "It is a blow to the integrity of the research process and to academic freedom."

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Abbott, A. Dismissed researcher wins court battle. Nature 458, 558–559 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/458558b

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