Max Planck Society’s actions raise serious concerns about leadership and the future of German neuroscience

Prof Nikos Logothetis
Professor Nikos Logothetis

The scientific community was in shock when one of Europe’s leading neuroscientists, Nikos Logothetis PhD of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, announced in 2015 that he would that he would no longer use nonhuman primates in his research into the physiology of cognitive processes, and that the work of his team would turn to focus on rodent studies.

His decision was driven by failures in support from his institution and others in the aftermath of a campaign by the German animal group Soko Tierschutz (SOKO). As reported by Nature:

“The society is ‘one of the best scientific organizations worldwide,’ Logothetis wrote, but it has failed to take concrete steps against the activists. ‘I am no longer willing or able to accept the never-ending stream of abuse from animal activists toward myself and my co-workers while seeing them encouraged to increase their aggressive activities by the tolerance and very slow reactions of scientific organizations…’ the letter states.”

As reported (here, here, here, here), the campaign began with edited video footage from a member of the animal group SOKO  who had infiltrated the facility by working as a technician in animal husbandry. The video shared publicly consisted of brief clips taken from many hours of footage. A 2015 article in Nature summarizes:

“Logothetis’s problems began last September, when a German television channel aired a documentary using footage of his macaque monkeys secretly filmed by an animal-activist infiltrator. It seemed to show maltreatment of the animals. The resulting scandal led to a series of investigations that exonerated him and suggested that the behaviour of the monkeys had been staged for the camera. A police investigation is still going on.”

And as reported in Science in 2015: “Investigations by the Max Planck Society and animal protection authorities in the state of Baden-Württemberg found no serious violations of animal care rules.”

The ongoing case:  2015 – 2018

A lengthy article last week in Die Zeit provides a detailed look at the situation (note that below relies on Google translation). The article notes that:

The conduct of the Max Planck Society has enraged many scientists who worry about Germany’s position as a research location. Johanna Wanka, Federal Minister of Research in 2015, wrote on the Logothetis affair that she found it “completely intolerable that scientists are threatened and pressurised in Germany”. In contrast, the Max Planck Society says: “Germany’s position as a research location is at risk when animal welfare standards are not observed.”

The current situation is summarized in the article:

the prosecutor’s office Tübingen closed the investigation against Logothetis [in 2015]. They had not much to reproach him for. The monkey with the bald shaved skull that had horrified people on TV: all right. The animal had previously been operated on the head. That’s why the shaved hair. The wound secretion that had so miserably run over his face:  every human being would look pretty much the same after such an operation. Just that people wear a bandage and a cannula. Monkeys don’t. They would go for it right away. The remaining shock recordings were also possible to explain, leaving only one allegation: The researchers are accused in three animals, including the one at the Stern TV report, the female monkey Stella, to have euthanized them too late. [emphasis added] The investigating prosecutor wanted to settle the investigation, but then, what rarely happens, the Attorney General interfered and asked to think about a penalty order, because in their opinion ‘in at least one case the suffering of the animal was heavy’ and ‘Potentially circumstances that diminish the guilt have been overestimated.’ Earlier this year, the prosecutor’s office then applied penalty orders against Nikos Logothetis and two of his employees with of the allegation of animal abuse.’”  

In 2015, Professor Logothetis published a statement rebutting many of the claims made by activists and expressing concerns about the actions of the infiltrator. In that statement, Prof. Logothetis explains*: “…even absolute compliance with the letter and the spirit of such regulations cannot possibly guarantee risk-free procedures, a fact that is explicitly discussed and acknowledged in any experimental protocol anywhere in the world, and certainly in those approved by the licensing authorities (i.e. Regierungspräsidium) in Germany. It is precisely these acknowledged risks that make it necessary that invasive experimentation be carried out in animals rather than in humans.” (emphases added; *read full statement)

Neural recording in NHP
Taking neural readings in Macaque monkey. Image copyright Nikos Logothetis

Last week Nature reported that the Max Planck Society (MPS; which governs the 84 Max Planck Institutes) has now not only further undermined Logothetis and his research team, but has also embarked on a course of action that is likely to have severe and irrevocably damaging effects on the future of science at MPS and more broadly.  In brief, as reported by Nature: “Death threats and insults to Logothetis and his family followed — and in 2015, Logothetis decided to wind down his primate lab and replace it with a rodent facility. Events came to a head on 20 February this year, when Logothetis was indicted for allegedly violating animal-protection laws, after an animal-welfare group made complaints to police on the basis of the 2014 footage. Logothetis denies the charges. A trial date has not yet been set.”

Remarkably, MPS responded, ahead of any indictment: “MPS leadership removed Logothetis’s overall responsibility for animal research at MPI-Biocyb and banned him from conducting experiments with animals and from supervising others doing animal work.”

The charges against Logothetis appear to center on whether a monkey with post-surgical complications which was under veterinary treatment, should have been euthanized a day or two earlier than it was. Although rare, post-surgical complications are recognized as a potential risk associated with these types of experiments and those inherent risks were acknowledged by MPS (see below). Further, as Logothetis stated in 2015: “Animal-protection regulations suggest first attempting to treat an injured monkey before the responsible veterinarian decides to euthanatize the animal.”

In other words, like others, Logothetis and his team, including veterinarians, balance animal welfare with ethical, humane science. In this case, the team’s actions appear to be consistent with that. As reported: Logothetis says that the decisions about whether and when to kill the monkeys, which contracted infections after surgery, were appropriate and complied with the law. Veterinary staff attempted to treat the infections, he says, and two of the monkeys recovered. The third was humanely killed when staff decided that it was unlikely to recover.”

Further, a public statement by the animal protection officers at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen dated November 27th, 2014 states: “In Stella´s [the monkey in question] case, several veterinarians were involved in making careful decisions on which therapeutic measures might still have allowed for saving the animal at different time-points. The course of events was monitored continuously, and several times a day the question whether to end it all was raised. In case of a severely ill fellow-human, we would not give up straight away either. We scientists are just as affected as you when one of our animals is suffering, and we check with at least the same compassion what is ethically justifiable and what not.”

The MPS also has a public statement of support for neuroscience research with monkeys and appreciation for the risks of harm inherent in such research.  Risks in using invasive techniques: A complex organ like the brain cannot be studied with either replacement systems like tissue cultures or computer simulations. Even if it were possible to reproduce certain structures, these would not be capable of functioning if they were not linked to sensory organs and muscles, etc. Neurobiological research therefore still relies on the animal model. The use of invasive methods (the insertion of recording electrodes) in the brain is painless, but like every intervention is not without risk, which is also stated in every animal research proposal. It is painless for the animals because brain tissue does not have any touch or pain receptors. Electrodes are also implanted in human brains for diagnostic and therapeutic reasons but do not cause pain for the patients either. In rare cases, however, complications can occur (bleeding, infection), which impair the patient’s general condition and require intensive treatment.”

Nikos Logothetis

Scientific community response in 2015

Logothetis has long been recognized as one of Europe’s top neuroscientists, with a particularly strong track record in improving MRI techniques and technology (see also this Nature review), and  has also been one of the few neuroscientists and primate researchers in Germany to regularly engage with the media, and to explain to the public the importance of work being done in the institute and how they ensure the welfare of the research animals.

In 2015 there were serious question as to what more the Max Planck Society (MPS), and indeed Professor Logothetis’ fellow scientists in Tubingen and further afield could, and should, have done to publicly support him and his colleagues. Following publicity of the decision, neuroscientists at the University of Tubingen wrote an open letter of solidarity with Logothetis – one that was ultimately signed by 4,858 people.

A Nature Neuroscience editorial in 2015 also called for action:

Animal rights extremists are threatening nonhuman primate research by harassing scientists. … We cannot tolerate these tactics, and we must rally individual, institutional and governmental support to protect scientists. Although the threat posed by radical activists is not new, scientific institutions and organizations often lack an effective strategy for dealing with such problems when they arise, and their responses to these threats have been slow or absent. Research universities and institutions must rally around researchers who work with nonhuman primates, providing them with the support essential to continuing their research programs safely and successfully. Direct, proactive plans are needed to respond to the threats posed by radical activists as they develop and before they escalate into violence or investigators’ abandonment of research. Research institutions have lofty goals and valuable assets. They should protect these assets and more actively defend the researchers who help them achieve their visions.”

At MPS, a white paper was issued in 2017 on the subject of ‘Animal Experiments in Basic Research.’ The White Paper, which was adopted by the Senate of MPS, outlines key ethical issues surrounding the use of animals in basic research, including the lack of alternatives and the necessity of such research to gain scientific knowledge that is the basis for medical advances. The paper notes: “We cannot understand interconnected systems such as the immune system or the brain, for example, just by examining their individual components or by means of simplified models and computer simulations.” Given this public declaration, the lack of support by the MPS for its researchers, is even more disturbing.

What next?

The question now is how the scientific community and its leadership can respond to convey to MPS that their actions are highly concerning to scientists worldwide. To begin, important questions remain open.  Given that neither MPS nor state authorities found serious violations in 2015, the current questions surround why, and what new internal assessment led MPS to decide it was necessary to revoke the ability of Prof. Logothetis to carry on with his work.  Does MPS believe Prof. Logothetis violated laws regulating the work? If not, what is the basis for their decision? If MPS stands by its public statement, then why after all these years, did MPS decide it was necessary to revoke Prof. Logothetis ability to continue his research?

Prof. Logothetis concluded his 2015 statement with a call for the scientific community, governments, and the public to consider the broad ethical questions balanced in research:

“It is my opinion that the activities of animal extremists have now reached the point where all science-promoting organizations, as well as the government itself in each country, must take a strong stand in defense of research. A failure to do so could jeopardize basic research worldwide. Claims that basic science is useless or that such research has never contributed anything to medical progress would not be worth answering if they were not so easily believed by an uncritical public and were not such an easy way to attract donations. Animal experiments are irreplaceable if we want a healthy society, and animal experiments do have risks and certain discomfort, both of which must be objectively weighed against the benefits of research. What society can ignore human suffering to promote the welfare of mice? If the ultimate benefit of patients is not considered a greater good, then we should indeed stop science and research.”

We express our solidarity with Nikos Logothetis and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen. The scientific community must now bring the weight of publicity to the decisions that MPS leadership has taken—decisions that undermine science, discoveries, and medical research well beyond their walls. While in the immediate, the devastating consequences of these decisions fall disproportionately on Logothetis and his team, the precedent set by this case will undoubtedly have far-reaching, long-lasting consequences, well beyond the confines of MPS. Indeed, these kinds of actions threaten the very core of basic research.

We have written many times on this blog on the need for scientists and supporters of biomedical research –as individuals and as societies and institutions – to speak up for science and animal research. Remaining silent in the face of attacks on legitimate science and scientists will ultimately jeopardize advances in knowledge and medicine that benefit global health.

Speaking of Research

5 thoughts on “Max Planck Society’s actions raise serious concerns about leadership and the future of German neuroscience

  1. I find it hugely concerning that an organization as reputable as the Max Planck Institute cannot provide adequate support for its scientists to safely and confidently undertake critical research using NHP’s.

    Being a frequent user of social media, I’m under no illusion how easy it is portray a situation in a certain light – exotic holidays, ripped bodies and impossibly well-decorated homes… when reality is… far from that! It’s surprising that so many are able to take these infiltrators’ videos at face value.

    This should be seen as a warning to all – open and direct communication with the media is essential from the very beginning.

  2. I visited that institute some day between 2005-2006 when I was a student in the neighboring institute and a friend was at that research group. It was too long ago I can’t recall the exact year. I saw one of the monkeys whose condition was far far better than those ones shown on German TV, but it still broke my heart. I am pro animal experiments and was doing I-don’t-know-how-many animal experiments myself. Still I can’t voice my support to him as a peer scientist because it would be against my conscience after seeing what I saw there. I used to think animal activists are insane but in the particular case, I do not think their points are invalid.

  3. A lay person starting her comment with “You vivisectionists”… The joke is told on its own. Funny how you talk of the invalidity of basing human medicine on animal models, when literally every single medicine/vaccine/surgery you have undergone/taken has at some point been tested in animals. If you are so lucky that you have not had a single medical intervention (even a single pill) in your life, then please, let´s continue this discussion!

  4. You vivisectionists are absolutely hysterically funny – or would be, were your aims not so absolutely self-invested and horrendously misguided. Go ahead and feel threatened by those animal activists. If you really want to turn the oncoming tsunami of public opinion, come on down from your lofty perches and debate like real men of science – with other scientists who reveal the invalidity of basing human medicine on animal models. Does a stressed-out monkey or rat – deprived of its natural habitat, social group and instincts – even begin to serve as an adequate stand-in for the human, let alone even the most infinitesimal physiological, biological, psychological differences…. I’m a lay person, and I am eager to hear from both sides

    1. Hi Anne, sounds like you are perfectly open to rational arguments from both sides.
      Is that why the biased questions you asked are parroted from the illegal activists message.

      Also there’s a typo in the zeit link, making it ziet. :)

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