Empathy expert resigns as head of Max Planck institute after report confirms bullying allegations
Empathy expert Tania Singer will resign as director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, after a commission confirmed allegations of bullying made by several members of the institute.
“[S]ignificant failures in leadership had occurred” at the institute, the Max Planck Society said in a statement released yesterday. “In order to avoid a further escalation of the situation and to enable all parties involved to return to focused scientific work, the Max Planck Society and Ms. Singer have agreed that she will step down from her position as Director on her own initiative.” The neuroscientist “will continue her work as a scientific researcher, on a smaller scale, without a management function outside the Leipzig Institute,” the statement noted.
Singer apologized “for the mistakes I made as a young director of a big Max Planck Department” in a letter to her former lab members. “My psychological and physical resources are exhausted and my reputation and my scientific career are severely damaged,” she wrote.
In August, Science reported that a number of researchers at the institute had leveled complaints against Singer, including allegations that she had created an “atmosphere of fear” in the workplace, and mistreated female employees who became pregnant. All but one of the researchers asked to remain anonymous because they feared for their careers.
In September, Martin Stratmann, president of the Max Planck Society in Munich, Germany, appointed a committee to investigate. Last month, the committee submitted its report, which confirmed the bullying allegations but noted there was no evidence that Singer had committed scientific misconduct. News of Singer’s resignation was first reported by Buzzfeed.
In her letter, Singer wrote that she had not intended to hurt researchers in her department, and that she had “worked on the expense of my own balance, even though this was apparently not visible to you.” She also noted that Max Planck officials have agreed to let her finish remaining projects together “with a mini‐group, separated from Leipzig.”
There are still some unresolved questions, however, including which institute her research group will ultimately join. Singer intends to remain as the principal investigator for at least some of the work of The ReSource Project, her ambitious study investigating the effects of meditation, according one of Singer’s colleagues.
Bethany Kok, a former member of Singer’s research group who is now lead data scientist at EmpowerTheUser, a tech company in Dublin, felt relieved by yesterday’s announcement. “What I wanted out of this was that other people would not have to go through what we went through and it sounds like some of that will be achieved. She won’t have as large a lab, and people who do work with her will go in informed.”
PhDnet, a network of Ph.D. students within the Max Planck Society, also welcomed the decision. “It was necessary and appropriate,” they wrote in a statement. “In particular we welcome that Ms. Singer will not have any management functions anymore and that no more junior researchers will have to suffer under her misconduct.” But the statement also criticized the Max Planck Society for being slow to take the allegations seriously, and acting only after media reports. “We would wish future cases to be handled faster, more transparently and more skillfully.”
Singer’s case and a similar case at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, have sparked a wider debate on whether the administrative structure of the Max Planck Society, which operates dozens of research centers across Germany, is contributing to misbehavior. Stratmann has announced a task force to investigate whether “the events that have taken place at a few institutes are isolated cases or if we are dealing with structural problems.”