The Max Planck Society knew about the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics since at least 2013. They did nothing

The Max Planck Society knew about the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics since at least 2013. They did nothing

Since February this year, the cases of bullying and harassment at Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) are openly discussed in the press (Spiegel, BuzzFeed, Nature News and again BuzzFeed). The Max Planck Society (MPG) claims that they acted as fast as they had learned about the situation. The MPG claims, through their head of communications, Dr. Christina Beck, that they did not know about the situation before 2016. However, problems at the MPA were previously reported to the MPG since 2013 in documents that Christina Beck saw as well.

The headquarters of the Max Planck Society has a history of silencing dissenters and complaints

In 2013, Martin Stratmann, the current MPG president was the one leading the external expert commission evaluating the MPA – known as Scientific Advisory Boards (SAB). Before being the MPG president, Martin Stratmann was the vice-president for the chemistry-physics-technology section (CPTS) for six years. Therefore, he visited each Mac Planck Institute (MPI) in this section, including the MPA, every other year. During these SAB visits, there is a meeting in which the SAB meets alone with PhD candidates and postdocs. This is an avenue for junior researchers to discuss their problems. The MPG claims that when the new vice-president visited the MPA in 2016, the junior researchers complained for the first time. Is it the lack of complaining during the SAB evaluation or is it the change of people leading the evaluation?

I don’t know what was discussed back in the last SAB evaluation led by Martin Stratmann at the MPA in 2013. However, what I know is that junior researchers at that institute were very vocal about discriminatory practices. In 2013 – while being the CPTS PhD representative in the Max Planck PhDnet steering group I received complaints regarding discriminatory payment – foreigners received stipends and Germans contracts. (The Max Planck PhDnet steering group (SG) represent all the Max Planck PhD candidates. In 2013, I was elected the CPTS representative in the SG while in 2014 I was the PhDnet Spokesperson) In 2013, the general administration replied that they asked the MPA and the allegation was denied; no other investigation was done beside a request for a self-report. This is why, when I became the Spokesperson in January 2014, I put together the old complaints with new complaints and handed them over to the general administration as the “Status Report of the Max Planck Society PhDnet Steering Group 2014”. The report was endorsed by the MPG president at the time, Peter Gruss. Moreover, the Status Report was sent together with this presidential letter to all the MPG directors.

When Martin Stratmann became president, he dismissed the problems reported as not being thoroughly investigated. Additionally, the president argued that, as vice-president, he visited a lot of MPIs. Thus, he alleges a good overview of the local situation at MPIs. Soon after this, I received internal communication from inside the general administration of the MPG showing that a lot of effort was put not into solving the problems I reported, but into silencing them. Furthermore, these briefs show plans to restructure the PhDnet – which was criticized as self-organized – such that another Status Report doesn’t happen in 2015 and the PhDnet’s external activities don’t create problems for the MPG. By bringing the PhDnet budget into the discussion, the MPG succeeded in 2015 in forcing the PhDnet SG to propose a change in the PhDnet statutes. The change put the election of the MPI doctoral representatives under the responsibility of election committees under the control (“support”) of the MPI’s management. What would happen if a known dissenter like me would like to run for local representation at a problematic institute to reach the PhDnet annual meeting to be elected as Spokesperson?

The Max Planck Society has a long history of mishandling discrimination of foreigners

The recent reports about the situation at the MPA bring some accusations of discrimination. But discrimination against foreigners was an accepted culture inside the MPG for a long time. The discrimination in payment based on nationality was a practice that brought the MPG in trouble repeatedly.

First, Andrea Raccanneli took the MPG to the European Court of Justice in 2004 because the discriminatory payment was an internal rule in the MPG. After the European Court of Justice stated that the MPG rule was a violation of the free movement of workers law, the MPG changed the rule. Second, after the rule was officially changed in 2004, a small inquiry from Die Linke in 2012 showed that the MPG still awards stipends without social benefits mainly to foreigners. Even when they were criticized in the Bundestag, the MPG didn’t take any action to stop discrimination. Third, when a study the MPG commissioned HIS to survey career paths of alumni and senior doctoral candidates in 2013, the comments section yielded too many unrelated comments regarding discrimination. The report was summarized by Christina Beck who wrote that PhDnet was right to criticize the discriminatory payment practices. The summary of the survey I made available for download doesn’t make justice to the comments inside the long report Christina Beck had on her table related to discrimination. One of these comments is very descriptive:

In my field, astrophysics, there is an over-production of PhDs, which becomes very clear only at the end of the doctorate period, when the candidate is looking for post-doctoral jobs in research.

This dramatic situation is not mentioned to any PhD students during their doctorate period. You should either select much less people, applying a cut to only the very best ones, or be honest and mention the brutality of the job market to the PhD students well in advance. What I understand is that you, as institution, “take advantage” of PhD students, as you know that most of them are extremely motivated. They represent ~30-40% of the members of an institute, you give them a derisory salary, they carry on most of the research of the host institute and hide them from the reality of their job perspectives.

There is also a very large difference (discrimination?) of treatment between German students and foreign students. German students are all employed with a regular contract, while foreign ones have a grant. Because of this, German students have the right for unemployment help, in case they need it, foreign students do not. This is often the case at the MPI for Astrophysics (Garching). In this institute it is likely that a student needs more than 3.5-4 years to complete the doctorate. According to new internal rules, any student can receive a salary only for a maximum of 3.5 years. This limit is not always translated into a feasibility limit of the proposed research project/thesis. Having a normal contract, a German student out-of-course (i.e. over the 3.5 years of doctorate) will be covered by German unemployment salary until he/she completes the doctorate.

A foreign student is not paid at all and ends up working for free for 6 months/1 year or asking the parents for financial help.

This situation does not match up with the good reputation of the Max Planck Society

To summarize the comment, the MPA didn’t shy away from forcing their doctoral candidates to work unpaid. Also, they did not seem to care that foreigners couldn’t access the unemployment benefits because they received stipends instead of contracts, unlike their German counterparts. In addition, there were complaints of improper supervision by giving junior researchers projects too ambitious for the 3-4 years recommended for a MPG PhD thesis; receiving impossible tasks is one of the signs of workplace bullying. Moreover, the press office of the MPG knew about this situation since at least 2014, the same time they received the PhDnet Status Report. In addition, the one who looked through the full-length HIS report and summarized the comments related to discrimination was Christina Beck; she is the only person responsible in selecting the comments reaching the presidential desk. Nevertheless, Christina Beck repeatedly states that the MPG general administration at the headquarters never saw any complaint against the MPA before 2016.

After Christina Beck wrote in 2014 that PhDnet was right to criticize the discrimination in payment practices, she was asked by journalist Sven Grünewald about these complaints. She aptly argued that there is no discrimination:

Die MPG konnte den Anteil der ausländischen Doktoranden zwischen 2002 und 2013 von 36% auf 51% steigern. Während die Zahl der deutschen Doktoranden in diesem Zeitraum lediglich um 25% gestiegen ist, hat sich die Zahl der ausländischen Doktoranden im selben Zeitraum mehr als verdoppelt! Entsprechend hat auch der Anteil der ausländischen Doktoranden, die ein Stipendium beziehen, zugenommen. Diese Entwicklung war politisch gewünscht – im Rahmen des Paktes für Forschung und Innovation hat man der MPG ja nun explizit angetragen, einen Beitrag zur Internationalisierung des Forschungs- und Wirtschaftsstandortes Deutschlands zu leisten.

Aktuell erhalten etwas mehr als 2100 Doktoranden in der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft ein Stipendium, davon 750 Inländer und etwa 1400 Ausländer. Und dabei können Sie das Max-Planck-Stipendium durchaus auch als Auszeichnung sehen, denn im Zuge der Ausschreibungen unserer IMPRS kommen im Schnitt auf einen Förderplatz 25 Bewerbungen, davon 65% aus dem Ausland – und das ist nur die Durchschnittszahl, teilweise beträgt der Ausländeranteil unter den Bewerbern auch 80%. Das sind natürlich Leute, die ggf. auch prüfen, ob sie in den USA oder Großbritannien promovieren können. Und dann sind die Bedingungen in Berkeley an der University of California keine anderen als bei uns, auch dort werden sie mit einem Forschungsstipendium gefördert! Im internationalen Vergleich ist das ein maßgebliches Förderinstrument.

Moreover, after she internally wrote that the HIS career survey shows that the discrimination is a problem, Christina Beck used the same survey to argue that people are happy with their payment situation:

Und natürlich ist die Finanzierung bei der Auswahl des Promotionsplatzes nicht alles – in der Bedeutung rangiert sie bei unseren Doktoranden laut einer Umfrage deutlich hinter Ausstattung, Reputation, internationalen Netzwerken und Karriereoptionen. Das sind die Hauptgründe, aufgrund derer man sich für Max-Planck entscheidet. Aber wir haben unsere Doktoranden im Rahmen dieser durch das HIS begleiteten Umfrage auch gefragt, wie zufrieden sie mit der Finanzierung sind. Drei Viertel der Befragten geben an, dass sie mit der Finanzierung „einverstanden“, „zufrieden“ bzw. „sehr zufrieden“ sind.

Interestingly, Christina Beck wrote in the summary of the HIS survey that only 43% of the respondents are satisfied with the financial compensation. Where are these three quarters coming from? The only three quarters I am aware of are the ones who, if given the choice, would choose a contract, as shown by the PhDnet 2012 survey. I also know that, when we surveyed over 1000 Max Planck PhD candidates in 2014, 24% of them said that they felt discriminated in the payment method received.

However, Christina Beck is not the only person in the general administration who misread and misused their own survey. On 1st of September 2014, Rüdiger Willems – the current General Secretary of the MPG – asked me to sign an agreement between the PhDnet and the general administration through which I acknowledge that “a vast majority” of people are satisfied with the payment situation. Later, I explained to him that we have a different definition of “vast majority”.

Lastly, though the discrimination was and still is a dismissed problem throughout the MPG, though problems were and are still not addressed properly inside the MPG, while Guinevere Kauffmann is not an isolated case, there is another aspect: Everybody literally knew about what happened specifically to “Nils” in 2014. I was the Spokesperson who took “Nils’” bullying case through every complaint avenue possible in the MPG in between April and June 2014: the presidential commission chair knew, the CPTS section head knew, the CPTS Ombudspeople didn’t act etc. People seemed to acknowledge the fact that Guinevere Kauffmann is a known bully; nobody did anything. (But that’s a story for another time)

Food for thought

To conclude, we can see:

  • careless disregard for the truth
  • disregard for the livelihoods of PhD candidates at the highest levels of the leadership
  • dismissal of complaints that barely reach those with the power to act
  • an immense effort made to argue against complaints instead of acting on the problems presented
  • silencing those complaining internally and ensuring that dissenters do not reoccur
  • cherry picking the surveys paid through taxpayers’ money for self-promotion instead of professional tools for identifying and solving problems

All of these were not committed at the MPA but at the MPG’s headquarters. This is not about whether Guinevere Kauffmann is a bully. This is about the fact that the MPG knew for a long time about her behavior (and not only about her behavior). The MPG chose to do nothing and now they claim that those complaints never reached them. We are not talking here about one mishap or bad internal communication between different MPG employees. I shared with you not one, but two documents that Christina Beck had in her hands, and a third she wrote admitting to the problem. Are we to trust any self-report by anyone in the MPG? Are we to trust anything that Christina Beck says to the media?

The MPG has a long history mishandling discrimination. Did anyone think that discrimination in payment based on nationality doesn’t trickle down into other aspects of the supervisor-doctoral candidate relationship? The MPG didn’t shy away from affecting the livelihood of junior researchers in a discriminatory way. But would they stop at disrespectful remarks that are arguably racist? One can only conclude that abolishing the stipend system in 2015 only concealed the true problem rather than solve it.

Finally, I hope that the MPG doesn’t consider these four-years-old leaks from the general administration a cause for investigating those who leaked. By their own words to BuzzFeed, it would be illegal to talk about issues that happened so long time ago. Moreover, it is counter-productive to fire all the people who leaked to me over time. Equally, it would be counter-productive to fire all the MPG directors who bullied junior researchers over time. What would work is to address all the complaints brought to them by PhDnet; it is unfair to chastise Guinevere Kauffmann as the representative of a few black sheep. In fact, there are a multitude of people who allowed the situation to evolve to a level that it had to reach the press for sustainable change to happen. We are far from “coming to a head”, as Nature News states. We are just beginning a long due discussion on #academicbullies.


One thought on “The Max Planck Society knew about the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics since at least 2013. They did nothing

  1. Pleased you’re continuing to post on this blog 🙂

    The building does look rather like an exploding star/atom or something! Seriously though, the kind of thing you are criticising is the reason I became an independent researcher, though I don’t think I ever had stuff as bad as you mention happen to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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