How the evaluation of one Max Planck Institute ended up in insults (part 1)

How the evaluation of one Max Planck Institute ended up in insults (part 1)

Summary

There was a scientific advisory board (SAB) evaluation at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry in December. Some early career scientists were not satisfied with how the evaluation proceeded. Hence, in early January 2016, they wrote an anonymous letter to the Max Planck Society (MPG) president, Martin Stratmann. A copy was sent to the German Minister of Education and Research, Johanna Wanka. Many people were upset with the letter. I received an arguably insulting email accusing me that I was the author of the anonymous letter. This made me start investigating what happened during and after the SAB. This is the first out of a series of blog entries analysing the current events at MPI for Biophysical Chemistry (MPI-bpc).

Overview of the events

Every two to three years, each MPI is evaluated by an international external committee on several criteria, among which the personnel structure, junior and guest scientists, equal opportunities, publications, open access etc (more details in MPG circular 21/2014). The results of the evaluation are sent to the president and a comparison between institutes is made. The evaluation results might lead to structural and/or financial consequences for the respective MPI.

A SAB evaluation took place in the middle of December 2015 at MPI-bpc. The result of this evaluation called the institute “a remarkably successful world class institute, exceptionally uniform in terms of scientific excellence and exemplar of the quality of the MPG”. As the MPI-bpc managing director, Herbert Jäckle said: “you can’t ask for more”.

Afraid that the MPI will be evaluated positively, like in the past, while the complaints issued during this SAB meeting will be filtered before they reach the MPG president, a few early career scientists wrote an anonymous letter to him and to the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The letter might not be in everyone’s taste, but is arguably within one’s right to complain without fear of reprimand.

The MPG president was reportedly embarrassed about this letter and asked the MPI-bpc managing director to take care of his students. Herbert Jäckle’s reply was “these are not our students”. Consequently, the MPI-bpc managing director met with the PhD and postdoc representatives. Subsequently, the representatives shared the anonymous letter, which until then was confidential on a private mailing list, in the afternoon of 22nd of January. In addition, Herbert Jäckle asked for a general assembly meeting with all PhD and postdoc fellows. This meeting took place on 27th of January. The form of the meeting was a one hour monologue given by Herbert Jäckle about the SAB and the letter. Little input from the participants was allowed in fear of heating up the spirits. During this meeting, Herbert Jäckle transmitted the president’s wish to have another letter from the MPI-bpc stating that not all the early career researchers at the institute stand by the letter. He would use the second letter in case of inquiries from BMBF regarding the original anonymous letter. The MPI-bpc managing director also said that the vice-president Bill Hansson “clearly stated” that sending such a letter to the BMBF “was a break of confidentiality”.

The German law does not agree with Bill Hansson’s statement and I will dedicate a future post to analysing whistle-blowing within the German law. For now, in short, if we look at the law, the letter can be viewed as an instance of taking advantage of two legal rights employees have: the legally binding MPG statutes and the Working Environment Act (Arbeitsschutzgesetz). The MPG statutes (article 28.7) allow each individual MPG employee to address the president in case they dissent from the decisions taken at their MPI. Similarly, section 17 of the Working Environment Act states that each employee has the right to complain in good faith to authorities, e.g., BMBF, if they are of the opinion that the employer did not take enough measures to remedy the complaints raised by the workers. As a consequence, the employees will suffer no disadvantage. In both cases, we are talking about the right of single employees and no consensus among employees is needed.

After this meeting, the local postdoc representative prepared the letter wished by the MPG president and announced a future anonymous survey. Moreover, Herbert Jäckle committed to three annual meetings with the early career researchers at the institute, while explicitly not making any promise to solve any of the complaints brought forth during the SAB, nor in the anonymous letter.

Food for thought

Some of the people at MPI-bpc wrote a complaint letter to the MPG president and sent a copy to BMBF. The origin of this complaint was an apparent fear that the SAB evaluation will be filtered before it reaches the MPG president. The style of the letter is might be considered not in everyone’s taste. However, the existing legal status allows individuals to send individual complaints to both the MPG president and the authorities, e.g., BMBF. Instead of independent investigation into the complaints, the MPG president wished for a letter contradicting the initial one to defend MPG’s image.

Why are people so outraged by a letter which is arguably within one’s individual freedom of complaint? In the same time they are not outraged by attempts to limit this freedom by spreading the false information that letting information out to authorities is illegal break of confidentiality? Nobody was outraged either by the fact that there was no commitment for change, even though the management mostly agreed with the complaints. And more importantly, no open debate was allowed in fear of heating the spirits. Why is the form in which the change is required more important than the fact that change is needed and no commitment for change is made? If no open debate is allowed, do we wonder why people write anonymous letters and leak internal information to external parties?

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