The press office of the Max Planck Society  keeps themselves busy with threats of legal action for years

The press office of the Max Planck Society keeps themselves busy with threats of legal action for years

Summary and context

The Max Planck Society (MPG) is receiving a lot of press due to the cases of alleged bullying and harassment at Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) (SpiegelBuzzFeed, Nature News, again BuzzFeed, Deutschlandfunk, Nature News, Nature News and today by Spiegel again.) I previously covered how the Press Office has a difficult relationship with the truth and how they dismissed old complaints from the junior researchers at the MPA since at least 2013. I also made a case for a long history of discrimination in the MPG. Some years ago, I argued that high rank officials in the MPG use threats and bullying when faced with public criticism. In this post I will present the MPG’s press office strategy of threats with legal action.

The Max Planck Society threatens with legal action whoever criticizes them

In her BuzzFeed report, Pascale Müller states that the press office of the MPG said that it is illegal to talk about four-year old cases at the MPA. It is not. But this is not the first time MPG’s press office made such statements about journalists. In 2014, when Report Mainz presented how the MPG deals with taxpayers’ money in a lax manner, the press office of the MPG labelled the journalistic work as “one-sided” and “biased”. The MPG got an injunction against Report Mainz – a legal instrument known as a delaying tactic because the accused doesn’t present their case until they attack the injunction in court at a later time. But the report went public and stayed public on the official ARD channel to this day. Together with my previous report of how officials of the MPG deal with journalists and politicians who disagree with them, one can only wonder whether the people responsible with decisions in the MPG have the emotional stability needed for their jobs.

But all these threats, insults and tactics only amuse the people who do not depend on the MPG. However, inside the MPG, one should worry when emails like the one bellow from December 2017 are sent from the press office of the MPG to all the Max Planck Institutes (MPIs).

Dear colleagues,

Some of you may have received emails by “[name deleted]”, accusing researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena of neo-Nazi behavior. This email was probably  sent by someone who seems to misuse  the name of [name deleted] who is working at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry.

Please note, that the accusations are completely irrational. That’s why we ask you, not to reply to the email. The colleagues in Jena and in the general administration of the Max Planck Society know the background of the incidents. The Max Planck Society is considering legal steps.

Using the N-word in relationship with a German is an unforgivable slur. But this is also the word used by foreigners when they face discrimination and have nobody to turn to because the internal mediation avenues are dysfunctional. In a research organization with a long tradition of discrimination and current reports of harassment based on nationality, would we wonder that believable accusations of discriminating behavior occur? I am not surprised because for years I read comments in internal MPG surveys. (Bellow you find an excerpt from the comments describing an atmosphere excluding foreigners at their MPIs).

Emotional outbursts by Max Planck directors are common

However, though using the N-word is not acceptable in any circumstance other than dealing with the real deal, MPG directors do not shy from using it to describe surveys. This is an email I once received from the managing director at one MPI when disseminating one of our surveys (Notes: The mailing list was not of the MPI but a private one owned by PhD candidates and postdocs. It was a survey related to time limited contracts and not a petition. In 2014 the parties member of the German parliament were: CDU/CSU, SPD, Die Linke and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen – I am not sure whom the MPG director called the N-word)

Sehr geehrte Frau Scacio [sic],

meine Frau hat über den Institutsserver eine Petition (time-limited contracts) erhalten. Es hätte mich interessiert was Sie damit bezwecken und wieso diese Petition über den Institutsserver verbreitet wird. So weit ich weiss (und ich mag da falsch liegen) ist der Server da, arbeitsbezogene Information zu verteilen und nicht, wie Sie schreiben ”

to better address the politicians".

Oder sollten wir auch Rundmails von Neonazis auf dem Server verbreiten, die haben ja auch “Politicians” in den deutschen Parlamenten?

Mit freundlichen Gruessen,

What worries me is that time and time again, instead of ignoring issues that nobody would pay attention to, the MPG overreacts while defending themselves. Their reaction makes me curious. What are they hiding or ignoring? Why are they investing so much time, energy and money to start a legal action? Or is the legal action just a threat circulated at the MPIs to intimidate dissenters and critics from time to time?

Last time I started digging based on a letter with accusations that nobody would pay attention to, I started the #infamousletter series (a series that I should continue because the things I uncovered are worth making public before the next Scientific Advisory Board meeting in December 2018). The posts in the series had more than 5000 views. Wouldn’t it have been easier to leave things as they were?

Answers to the question: How could the working conditions in your institute be improved to increase your scientific performance?

Increased social interaction in English

Better salary, equal employment options for Germans and foreigners. Better support for the non-German speaking employees from the administration (more opennes and less conservatism).

better work atmosphere. Uniform usage of English as vernacular.

by changing german cold behaviour!!!

more efficient, less German administration and especially IT, i.e. efficient, friendly help instead of threatening with regulations.

Fair employment circumstances. Or at least not a divide between how Germans are treated versus non-Germans. (Germans are allowed to have stipends, just as non-Germans can have contracts.) Also, non-Germans can teach courses (especially those offered in English) to Master’s students just as well as Germans can. Why is this prohibited?

I feel that the research atmosphere in the institute should be in English. I sometimes feel that the foreign students really have difficulty when they feel lonely due to a different atmosphere every when working in the so called International Max Planck Institutes

Institute resources that are managed by administration and given prefferentially to administrators. E.g. Institute apartments, foreign scientists have to spend weeks and months looking for apartments for several years while administrators live many decades. When scientists do get them they somehow pay twice yhe price as administration. Strict funding rules and administrative decrees mean lots of paperwork

It would be beneficial if work disscussions are held in English. The benefit of course is two-way–I understand the work of my colleagues better while they practice their scientific English.

join the international office rather than share office with people from the same country

Reasonable accommodation for international students. very little flexibility has been shown to accommodate students with family abroad. the stipend/contract is very little.

The environment could be more international. In my lab most of the colleagues are German and they speak German, which makes it diffcult to make friends with them.

there mast be communication in english and should have take more international students to keep the high collaborative research within a institute also.

Free comments (Note: though the MPG abolished doctoral stipends in 2015, the mindset creating the discrimination was not addressed. Special emphasis on the solidarity shown by Germans to foreigners.):

The sometimes invoked argument that foreigners need not pay taxes as they will not benefit from future social benefits is completely unfounded. In my case, receiving a grant denied me of 4 years (PhD+Postdoc) of contributions to future retirement benefits that I could add to my current contributions in France. Those 4 years would have even added to my benefits in the USA given the tax agreements with European countries.
In summary, it is a distinction that cannot be noticed by a starting doctoral student but that later in one’s career is recognized as a huge setback in economical terms (in an already poorly paid profession) and, more importantly, as an unfair distinction among otherwise equally performing researchers.
Shame on the Max-Planck.

Even if it does not affect me as a German I would like to comment the following: I am concerned by the different treatment of German and foreign PhD students. It is difficult to accept that foreign students are only eligible to receive scholarships at our institute, but are still treated as employees with all associated responsiblities. This means less salary for the same work, and no chance to pay into pension plans, neither here nor in their home country. A prestigious institution like the MPI should not discriminate people based on their origin.
Also, more information should be given to foreigners about practical issues like health insurance. Usually, the institute opens a private travel insurance for them when they start. However, this only covers the basic needs and is not intended for a long-term stay. They should also be informed that they will not be able to switch to a public one any more, even when later being on a post-doc stipend (at least this is what the insurances told me when I tried to help a colleague)

On the financial side, I had been supported for the entire doctorate thanks to a Max Planck grant, which I am grateful for. However I noticed that those grants were mainly provided to foreign students, while German students were mostly offered a standard contract, thus allowing them to pay taxes and to get unemployment support etc. I always considered that a sort of discrimination.

i think the mpi is a great place to do research! however, one thing always bothered me. That is: the different working-contrats of germans (employees) versus non-germans (financed via mpigrant).
I consider that situation as unfair. in particular the consequences this grant has with respect to social security, which did not exist for non-germans (health-insurance: either very expensive  private healthcare insurance or very low quality; no retirement- and unemployment fund,…).
This is, in my opinion, violating the idea of equal working conditions within the european union.

Additionally you could see a big difference between Germans and foraniers ( even
contracts vs stipendiums).

The policy to give grants to non-German students is quite disadvantageous on the longer term and creates major differences between students who receive grants and students who receive salaries, as it impacts on the height of the salary after a PhD, social benefits such as unemployment money and pension schemes, and the possibilities to obtain a mortgage to purchase a property.




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