The story of an anonymous letter important for German academia

The story of an anonymous letter important for German academia


At the beginning of the year, an anonymous written by a couple of early career researchers at Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry (MPI-bpc)  was sent to the Max Planck Society (MPG) president and the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The letter summarized the local issues and framed them into the known problems in the German academic system. The MPG management attacked the letter by steering the discussion towards the quality of its authors. Moreover, early career researchers were intimidated to avoid future similar letters. Here I frame the current events at MPI-bpc within the national fight to change the German academic system and answer the question of why these events are interesting for all MPIs and academics working or planning to work in Germany.

The context of the #infamousletter

Upon an external evaluation of their institute, a couple of postdocs from (MPI-bpc) summarized the discussed issues and wrote an anonymous letter. They sent the letter to the MPG president and to BMBF. Not only that the anonymous authors gathered the local issues, but they framed these issues within the MPG and the German academic system. The letter started a debate at the MPI-bpc as the MPG president asked that the early career researchers sign a letter condemning the anonymous one. I offered an overview of the events in the first part of the #infamousletter series.

While making the #infamousletter story public, I contacted quite a few of my old science politics collaborators from both inside and outside the MPG. People showed their support and interest but did not see why they should care about it. Also, many asked for a copy of the letter or, at least, to say what it is about.

The #infamousletter within the German academic system

Everyone should care about the letter because it is a 19 pages criticism of the German academic system based on stories from MPI-bpc and Göttingen University. I can distil the covered issues into a few categories:

  1. Career paths in the German academic system
  2. Payment-related issues for junior academics
    • General flaws in the stipend system, e.g., lack of social security
    • Discriminatory awarding of stipends and contracts based on nationality
    • Academics working without pay
    • Expecting mothers receiving a stipend not having proper insurance coverage
  3. Criteria used for selecting and promoting academics
    • Group leaders and professors lacking the qualities of good leaders and/or managers
    • Academic freedom used as an excuse for deregulating departmental administration
    • Poor mentorship of junior academics
    • Neglect of teaching skills in evaluating academics
    • High-impact publications being the sole measurement for academic success, allegedly leading to scientific misconduct
  4. Lack of representation for junior academics inside decision-making committees
  5. Academic careers being incompatible with work-life balance
    • Difficulties faced by parents in academia
    • Inability to sustain a relationship when mobility is required for at least one partner
    • Inadequacies of campus food catering, fitness center etc.
    • Insufficient campus support for foreign scientists
  6. Non-optimal budget management for academic institutions’ infrastructure
  7. Barriers to open access to scientific results

I feel that the issues stated are relevant for all academics working or planning to work in Germany. This is not the first time these issues come up. They were brought forth in the past by the network representing all the MPG PhD candidatesPhDnet. Moreover, GEW – the German Union for Education and Research – started in 2010 a campaign entitled Templin Manifesto. The campaign has a similar list of demands. Furthermore, in 2014, more than 25000 scientists rallied for fair career perspectives in the German academia. Last week, the Federal Council (Bundesrat) passed an amendment to the Science Employment Act (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz), but experts are not satisfied that the reform will bring the needed change. Many position papers, petitions, open letters, campaigns, and discussions around the German academic system happened and will still happen. The current letter is just one of the many instances.

The perils of not knowing your opponent

But if the present letter is just one of many, why is this important to discuss? Because how things evolved around it can explain why we do not have nice things in academia. The above-mentioned campaigns suffer, in my opinion, of two downsides. Either they are localized to specific, one might say, closed groups and/or they are not long-lasting and the know-how exchange does not happen across generations. The fact that the letter was written by just a couple of MPI-bpc postdocs proves the first point. This does not mean that their points are invalid. The second problem I mentioned is exemplified by the letter’s style. Without experience, its authors put themselves in the position of victims of red herring arguments. Sadly, this strategy from the letter’s opponents deterred discussing the issues as it divided the people. In addition, the MPG management used an old intimidation approach. Both strategies can be overcome by knowing the facts as presented below.

Firstly, the original debate was steered away from the issues at hand by tu quoque attacks. On one hand, the letter’s opponents criticized the authors’ emotional style and English level. Herbert Jäckle, the MPI-bpc managing director, stated that “if one reads the letter, they can smile. Smile in a sense that it is written in a frustrated haste”. On the other hand, in my second post of the #infamousletter series, I showed that these opponents are emotional as well provoking us to wonder whether the letter’s emotional style is not, in fact, a product of the MPG culture. In a future post, I will discuss the MPG internal culture related to English proficiency.

Secondly, MPI-bpc junior researchers were intimidated in order to avoid future similar complaints. The MPI-bpc managing director repeatedly stated that the letter constitutes a “break of confidentiality”. I showed in my first post of the #infamousletter series that sending such letters of complaint is a statutory right.

MPI-bpc might have found the way to make science politics engaging!

Since the MPI-bpc early career researchers fell victims to tu quoque attacks and intimidation stemming from a cultural lack of transparency in academia, I decided to postpone sharing the letter until I explain the events which surrounded its genesis. I hope that people will be able to have a discussion about the issues at hand, rather than about the authors’ qualities. Some argued that people might be distracted by the sandbox fight around the letter and make spectators question the MPG scientific excellence. I hope that the letter does not happen as people would see that a talent for science requires a different skill-set than politics. Furthermore, one external observer stated that if the situation surrounding the current letter would not be so controversial, this would be one of the many campaigns nobody cares about as politics is boring on its value alone. MPI-bpc might have found the way to make science politics engaging!

Personally, I disagree with the letter on a number of issues, but I salute it because it started many exciting conversations. We must learn that rather than dividing people on different issues, we need a real open debate on real issues. I intend to make this debate possible across Germany and not only!

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