How the evaluation of one Max Planck Institute ended up in insults (part 3)

How the evaluation of one Max Planck Institute ended up in insults (part 3)

Summary and background

The Max Planck Society’s (MPG) institutes (MPIs) are evaluated every two to three years in terms of research output and personnel management by a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). After such an evaluation at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry (MPI-bpc), a couple of junior researchers wrote a letter addressed to the MPG president and the Education and Research Ministry. The letter summarized the issues discussed during the evaluation. Previously, I summarized the events surrounding the letter and argued that the letter – in particular, its controversial style – is a product of a culture in which the management suppresses opinions through bullying. However, the style of the letter is not a reason to neglect the issues brought forward, as they are characteristic of German academia

This is a continuation of the #infamousletter series and the first time the letter is made openly available. Read part 1 and part 2.

The #infamousletter is finally here

I hesitated to share the letter because of its controversial nature, but I feel that its contents are more important than its style. Hence, without further ado, the #infamousletter is finally here.

I want to make some things clear: my sharing of the letter does not mean that I stand by everything in it. It contains the opinions of its authors, not mine. Moreover, some of these opinions as well as some arguably false perceptions are misleadingly presented as facts. While I disagree with a number of opinions presented in the letter, I salute the fact that junior scientists took a stand and brought the following topics into discussion:

  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
  8. (Poor English proficiency level among academics)

The style of the #infamousletter

In the last month, I discussed the style of the letter with a few people who had read it. It dissuades people from taking it seriously.

Firstly, people complain about the letter’s emotional style, but the truth seems to be that non-emotional discussions of these topics are routinely ignored. A document discussing similar topics, but in an unemotional style, was put together in 2012 by the GEW (the German Education and Research Trade Union): the Herrschinger Kodex. But very few people are familiar with it. What’s more, politicians have largely disregarded it, as seen by the recent reform of the German Science Employment Act (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz; WissZeitVG), which put few of the Kodex’s suggestions into effect. Thus, I cannot help but wonder: In a world in which the flamboyant Donald Trump could become the US president, while Kim Kardashian unconventionally breaks the internet, isn’t emotionalism and anger the new politics? It seems to work for the MPG management.

Whether anger is good or bad is debatable but the anger is real. I and many early career scientists have struggled with how to deal with our anger, as it can cloud our judgement and prevent us from working towards our goals. However, I now agree with the words Barack Obama said during his “A More Perfect Union” speech:

That anger is not always productive…it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the […] community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that [already exists].

Secondly, the letter was criticized for being too long and that its demands could have been summarized in a page. However, when such short lists with solutions for the academic system were prepared, too few people took notice. For example, the GEW already wrote the Templin Manifesto with ten simple requests supported by around 10000 academics. Additionally, the “Perspectives Instead of Limitations” petition was signed by a few more than 25000 academics. In comparison, Germany awards 28000 PhD titles a year. On one hand, too few academics got involved in these initiatives. On the other hand, maybe because of its controversial style, and not in spite of it, the letter caused a meeting of almost 200 early career scientists to occur at MPI-bpc. It also caused many to openly discuss the issues covered by the letter. Maybe this type of activism is a successful recipe for ending apathy. Similar rants work on a weekly basis for the “comedic fool”, John Oliver, as he instigates activism in support of until-then-boring issues such as net neutrality.

Preview of future entries in the #infamousletter series

In the spirit of Obama’s speech, I will try to make people understand what produced such a letter by trying to answer these questions:

  1. What was the situation at the MPI-bpc before the SAB evaluation?
  2. How did the MPI-bpc prepare for the SAB evaluation?
  3. What was said during the SAB meeting and how did the evaluators react to the issues put forward?
  4. How did the directors and early career scientists act after the SAB recommended certain changes?
  5. What were the MPI-bpc management’s statements regarding the issues brought forward? What changed after the letter?
  6. Legally speaking, is writing such a letter “a breach of confidentiality”, as Vice-President Bill Hansson called it, or is his statement just an attempt at intimidation?
  7. Is the attempt to intimidate junior scientists unique to the MPI-bpc? Or is it representative of the standard culture inside the MPG and academia in general?
  8. How did the people representing the early career scientists do their job during the events surrounding the letter?
  9. Criticizing the critics: What could the early career scientists do better in this situation?
  10. Is really everything bad at the MPI-bpc or can we find good practice examples?
  11. What solutions are there for the problems presented?
  12. What will the MPG and the MPI-bpc state regarding the facts I present upon inquiry?

After this, I will address the eight topics covered in the letter by giving examples and statistics from the MPI-bpc, the entire MPG, and from German and international academia.


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