Max Planck’s cherished autonomy questioned following criticism of misconduct investigations

Nicole Boivin, a former director of one of the Max Planck Society’s research institutes, inside an atrium with art behind her.

Archaeologist Nicole Boivin was a director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.Credit: Saverio Petraglia

A former director of one of the Max Planck Society’s prestigious research institutes, who says she was unfairly demoted, has called on Germany’s research ministry to oversee the society’s procedures for misconduct investigations. Six other Max Planck Institute (MPI) directors, some of whom have themselves been investigated or demoted for misconduct, have also told Nature that they feel the society’s misconduct investigations lack transparency and are affected by bias.

Archaeologist Nicole Boivin at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena is one of eight MPI directors who are known to have been demoted, or threatened with demotion, after investigations into allegations of non-scientific misconduct, which includes actions such as bullying and harassment. In an open letter published on 8 June, Boivin says that these investigations have been “plagued by allegations of bias, conflicts of interest, and procedural and legal shortcomings”.

The run of demotions has led to an atmosphere of fear among MPI directors, says developmental biologist Herbert Jäckle, an emeritus director at the Max Planck Institute for Multidisciplinary Sciences in Göttingen. “They are concerned about how the investigations are going, but afraid to speak out,” he says.

Boivin writes in her letter that she was not given the opportunity “to offer any reasonable response, evidence or witness testimony” to anonymous allegations.

The Max Planck Society (MPS) declined to answer specific questions for this article, but in an e-mailed summary of Boivin’s case, a spokesperson told Nature that the MPS stands by all of its decisions in the affair and that Boivin was given all required opportunities to present her side of the case. MPS president Martin Stratmann, who made the initial decision to demote Boivin, declined to comment on the case because it has concluded. But the MPS’s e-mail said that Stratmann’s decision was “was preceded by a extremely thorough internal investigation into the allegations levelled against Dr Boivin”.

Researchers speak out

Stratmann demoted Boivin last October after an investigation that stretched over more than two years concluded that she had committed misconduct, including bullying two young scientists and taking over another scientist’s research project. In December, a Berlin court suspended the demotion , but the society reinstated it in March. Boivin, who remains a researcher at the institute, denies all the allegations against her. Last April, her PhD students and postdocs wrote to the MPS president in her defence.

Boivin’s open letter joins criticisms made by many other scientists of how the society handles misconduct allegations. Last November, 145 high-profile female international researchers wrote an open letter to the MPS leadership expressing concern that female scientific leaders at MPIs are being disproportionately affected by challenges to their leadership styles (the MPS has previously rejected charges of gender bias made in that letter). Around the same time, a personal letter from 24 emeritus institute directors to Stratmann, which was leaked to the press, questioned whether Boivin’s investigation had appropriately heard her side of the story. It also said that the case threatened the society’s reputation and called for the MPS to introduce transparent governance structures.

The MPS declined to give Nature official figures on the numbers of cases involving non-scientific misconduct at MPIs. But the public criticisms have fuelled a debate about whether Germany’s publicly funded research organizations should have so much autonomy.

The MPS has an annual budget of around €2 billion (US$2 billion) from state and federal governments to run its 86 institutes and facilities. It enjoys the freedom granted in the German constitution to organize its own structures and procedures, without political interference.

This freedom has sometimes been a source of friction in political quarters. “This extensive autonomy is desirable for designing and carrying out research, but should not necessarily extend to aspects of personnel,” says Holger Becker, a physicist who is a lawmaker in the German parliament and is on the parliament’s research committee. He says that the MPS has a very strong staff hierarchy, and the president has an unusual amount of power compared with research organizations in other countries.

Dismayed members

Boivin’s case began in 2018, when she made an official complaint to Stratmann that she was being harassed by the two other directors in her institute. She charged that Stratmann had failed to address her allegations seriously. Two weeks later, Stratmann informed Boivin that she was to be investigated for misconduct; Boivin says that the details of those accusations were not made clear to her at the time.

The society established a committee to investigate the allegations made by and against Boivin. In January 2021, the committee concluded that Boivin had engaged in both scientific and non-scientific misconduct. Vice-president Ulman Lindenberger investigated further, and reported on the scientific-misconduct allegations. On the basis of those two reports and the advice of his executive committee, Stratmann decided in October to immediately demote Boivin — without waiting for the approval of the MPS senate. The senate comprises MPS directors and representatives from politics and industry and notionally oversees the workings of the society. MPS regulations allow such a step only when there is a risk of immediate damage to the society. Boivin hired a lawyer to contest the demotion through the Berlin court.

When the senate met less than a month later, some members expressed their dismay at the president’s decision. “We were given no documents — only a simple statement from the MPS and no statement from Boivin’s side,” says Ulrike Beisiegel, who was president of the University of Göttingen until 2019 and has been a member of the MPS senate since 2011. MPS regulations require that such an action is approved by the senate; a retrospective vote on Boivin’s demotion was postponed until the following senate meeting, in March this year.

Ahead of the March senate meeting, Becker says that he called political representatives on the senate and advised them to request an independent investigation into the Boivin affair. This time, the senate was given documents about the case and gave a majority vote in support of the demotion. But Beisiegel says that the documents were not discussed at the meeting. “The senate does not act like a real board, ensuring the society follows procedures,” says Beisiegel. “It is a serious problem.”

Opaque proceedings

Boivin says that she was never given a proper hearing, and was given the details of the accusations against her only at the end of the years-long investigation. She says that the investigation did not always follow internal MPS rules and that some of the same people sit on multiple committees involved in the process.

Nature spoke to six Max Planck directors who had been demoted, were under investigation for non-scientific misconduct or who had raised concerns about procedures internally. All had similar criticisms about the lack of transparency and perceived bias in MPS investigations, which they say involve too few independent arbiters. (All the directors asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.)

Some countries, including Denmark and Sweden, have established national agencies to investigate allegations of misconduct in researchers, to avoid issues of bias and non-transparency. Beisiegel helped to create Germany’s first national guidelines on good scientific practice and handling of misconduct in 1997, which all universities must adopt. The guidelines work well in general, she says, and scientists in Germany are attached to the freedom afforded to them by the constitution. “So I think in Germany it would be very difficult to come up with an external body,” says Beisiegel.

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