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Neuroscience societies join outcry over treatment of Max Planck neuroscientist

The US Society for Neuroscience and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies together represent more than 60,000 researchers.

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Nikos Logothetis

Nikos Logothetis studies how the brain makes sense of the world.Credit: Sven Cichowicz

The two major neuroscience societies in the United States and Europe have joined forces to criticize the prestigious Max Planck Society (MPS) in Germany for its treatment of a world-renowned neuroscientist targeted by animal-rights activists.

In January, a district court issued Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics (MPI-Biocyb) in Tübingen who used to run a primate laboratory, with a penalty order — an accusation of a minor offence combined with a fine, which automatically becomes a conviction if the accused does not appeal — for alleged mistreatment of animals. The allegations were first made by animal-rights groups. Logothetis immediately appealed against the penalty order. When the public prosecutor announced the penalty order in February, the MPS removed many of Logothetis’s responsibilities relating to animal research — despite the fact that the court has not yet ruled on the appeal. Logothetis, who studies how the brain makes sense of the world, denies the allegations.

In a strongly worded statement posted online on 3 August, the US Society for Neuroscience (SfN) and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS), which together represent more than 60,000 scientists, add to an outcry that has been gathering momentum since scientists at MPI-Biocyb made their concerns public in May.

“FENS and SfN are extremely dismayed by the treatment of Professor Nikos Logothetis and his colleagues,” reads the joint statement.

The MPS's actions set "an alarming precedent whereby institutions neglect to support affiliated scientists facing similar unproven accusations and disregard the presumption of innocence”, adds the statement.

The MPS declined to comment directly on the SfN–FENS statement, or on two other statements criticizing the society’s handling of the case, which two groups of international scientists posted online on 25 July and 2 August, respectively. Instead, the society’s spokesperson referred Nature to an interview with MPS president Martin Stratmann, published in German universities’ newspaper duz in the wake of the first public letter. In the interview, Stratmann said that the society strongly believes in the need for animal research, and that he restricted Logothetis’s work with animals to reassure the public that the MPS takes allegations of non-compliance with animal-protection laws seriously. Stratmann also said that the society had supported Logothetis in many ways.

Cancelled review

In their statement, the SfN and FENS also criticize the MPS’s decision to cancel an evaluation meeting of the institute’s international scientific advisory board planned for November, after state prosecutors announced in October that they were investigating allegations against Logothetis.

“The two societies call on the Max Planck Society to rectify their unfair treatment of Professor Logothetis and to reinstate the planned scientific review cancelled by the MPS in the wake of the Logothetis case,” the statement says. The societies describe the review as “a key element of the institute’s usual transparent scientific review process”.

The SfN–FENS statement also addresses the impact of the affair on the wider neuroscience community. “The scientific community looks to bodies such as the Max Planck Society for leadership and clarity,” it says. It adds: “We call upon all research institutions to develop mechanisms that will guarantee support for their affiliated scientists when targeted in a similar way by animal activists.”

The MPS declined to comment directly to Nature on whether the public statements could damage the society’s international reputation. In response to a similar question in the duz article, Stratmann said that he has “had numerous conversations with peers within the MPS as well as members of the international community of scientists, to explain the situation”. And he said: “Most people also understand that the credibility and reputation of the MPS are at stake if evidence of possible misconduct is not pursued in a consistent manner.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05907-2
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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 19 September 2018: An earlier version of this story stated that Nikos Logothetis was indicted in February following charges of mistreatment of animals, and that a court had not yet considered those charges. In fact, in January the district court in Tübingen issued Logothetis with a penalty order — an accusation of a minor offence combined with a fine, which automatically becomes a conviction if the accused does not appeal — for alleged mistreatment of animals. Logothetis immediately appealed. The appeal will be heard in court but no date has been set. On 20 February, the public prosecutor in Tübingen announced the penalty order. The text has been updated to reflect this.