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Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Society investigates new allegations of abuse

Anonymous survey of young scientists reveals fresh accusations of bullying and harassment at astrophysics institute.

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View of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft sign outside the doors to the General Administration building, Max Planck Society, Germany.

The Max Planck Society is one of Germany's wealthiest research organizations.Credit: Manfred Bail/Getty

The Max Planck Society, one of Germany’s wealthiest and most prestigious research organizations, is investigating fresh allegations of bullying and sexual harassment following an anonymous survey at one of its institutes.

In May, the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) in Garching sent out the survey to 120 MSc students, PhD students and postdocs; just over half responded. Three report that they were bullied and two report that they were sexually harassed. The survey results were leaked ahead of their scheduled presentation at the institute on 13 July.

The MPA carried out the survey in response to an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel in February. The article detailed accusations of bullying and sexual harassment of graduate students and postdocs at an unnamed Max Planck institute in Bavaria. A news report by BuzzFeed Germany, published on 27 June, raised further allegations of bullying and named the institute as the MPA.

It is not clear whether the new accusations revealed by the survey are related to the earlier allegations, nor whom they concern.

The survey asked the young scientists about their experiences of bullying or sexual harassment at the institute and about how satisfied they are with their supervisors and with the scientific and social environment there.

Most respondents replied that they were satisfied with their supervisors and with the environment at the institute. But most also said they were not satisfied with the institute’s response to the article by Der Spiegel. All of the 11 women who responded to the survey said they found the allegations raised in the article extremely serious. Nearly all of the 48 men who responded judged them either serious or extremely serious.

The Max Planck Society, which funds the MPA, says that it will now investigate the new allegations that emerged in the survey, and that it has commissioned an independent law firm to do so. “We need to clearly define these allegations in order to assess the severity of the incidents and to intervene accordingly,” says the society’s press officer Christina Beck.

Beck says that contact details of the law firm will be communicated to MPA staff in the coming weeks — and that scientists will be able to bring their allegations to the firm in full confidentiality. The firm will report its conclusions to the MPA leadership. Beck says she hopes that those affected will take advantage of the independent mechanism to report their allegations.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05668-y
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