[Note: This letter is from scientists, some of whom are members of the Speaking of Research committee. They include: Allyson J. Bennett, J. David Jentsch, Juan Carlos Marvizon, Amanda M. Dettmer, Jeremy Bailoo, Marcello Rosa, and Roberto Caminiti. We welcome other scientists and advocates to join us in signing this letter by adding their names and support comments. To do so, scroll to the end of the post to share in the comment box. An email address is required to comment/sign on, but it will not be published.
For those interested in additional information and detail, we urge you to read news links and our previous post.]
Update 8/5/18: A number of scientific organizations have now posted public letters of concern to MPS. A letter from the STAR coalition is posted here, along with links to the joint statement of the Society for Neuroscience and Federation of European Neuroscience Societies. We welcome other scientific and research advocacy groups who have written letters and statements of concern to add links in the comments below, or to email us.
The actions taken by the Max Planck Society (MPS) against the director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics (MPI-BC, Tübingen), Prof. Nikos K. Logothetis, are alarming and jeopardize fundamental research that is critically essential for understanding how cells in the brain process information and give rise to normal and abnormal thought and behavior.
The methodological developments and research discoveries of the Logothetis group are highly influential across the world, as they have significantly advanced our understanding of brain function and malfunction. The Logothetis department is certainly one of the most successful MPI-BC departments. For over two decades, this department has been extraordinarily productive, becoming the department of MPI-BC with the most cited publications (representing one metric of how substantially a research project influences others). Prof. Logothetis’ discoveries and scientific productivity are coupled with his leadership in highly regarded, continuous, and strong efforts to improve animal welfare during the conduct of crucial basic neuroscience research. The institute’s website documents these actions in detail. Further, Prof. Logothetis has a long history of communication and openness, contributing to public understanding of neuroscience research through providing accessible public information.
For all of these reasons, it is stunning that following a laboratory infiltration by an animal activist, the MPS failed to provide immediate and substantial protection and support for the scientists. Most recently, MPS has acted in a manner that suggests they are publicly incriminating Prof. Logothetis. They have done so by removing his overall responsibility for animal research at MPI-BC, and by banning him from conducting experiments with animals, or from supervising others doing such work. MPS’ actions are deeply troubling with respect to process, precedent, and fairness. Moreover, such actions are also in contrast to the well-known autonomy of all Max Planck Institutes.
The entirety of events over the 2014-current period can be summarized as follows and they have been written about at length elsewhere (links here, here, here also contain additional detail and further information). In brief, in 2014 an animal rights activist infiltrated the institute and filmed over 100 hours of the daily life of nonhuman primates within a period of approximately 6 months. An edited selection of less than 20 minutes of that footage was then aired on German television, to show out-of-context, selected scenes, such as those showing the behavior of an animal with a rare brain injury following surgery. No technology and no regulations – whether in human patients or animals – can possibly guarantee that surgical procedures are risk-free. This is a fact that is explicitly discussed and acknowledged in any experimental protocol and before any human surgery. Indeed, the balance of these risks with the potential benefit of research is embedded within the framework for ethical decisions about research. Moreover, immediately after the 2014 documentary was broadcast, an external specialist appointed by the MPS leadership found no welfare violations at MPI-BC. 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 subsequent decisions and actions of MPS appear to ignore these facts. The Society elected not to take legal action against the infiltrator and MPS also decided not to request that the videos taken by the infiltrator be made publicly available (which would have clearly shown the true state of the animals), and not to immediately declare its support of Prof. Logothetis. In fact, Prof. Logothetis eventually decided to terminate his nonhuman primate research because of abusive extremist behaviors by anti-animal research activists and the inability, or unwillingness, of his own organization to provide sufficient support.
MPS continues its decision-making that is of deep concern to the scientific community. In what appears to be an unprecedented move, the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) visit to the Institute was cancelled at the “last minute” (as reported here by Nature). The SAB is part of the scientific review process within the German research institutions’ system and the board is comprised of external scientists, experts in the field of study. The cancellation was made on the basis of the claim that MPS leadership wanted to uncouple the SAB visit from a court process related to allegations by an anti-animal research group, including a penal order, or (Strafbefehl), “a simplified procedure for coping with slight crime by means of a written penalty order.” In this case, the penal order is being challenged by Logothetis as wrongly given and thus, will not be resolved without hearing by the court. The time at which that will occur is unknown. In the meantime, the SAB cancellation by MPS has had serious deleterious consequences to other scientists at the MPI, to their careers, and to their research.
We believe that the failure of world renowned and respected organizations to protect science and scientists raises serious concerns that will affect the larger public by compromising scientific progress and medical advances. We therefore urge MPS and others to consider the consequences of these decisions and to restore the functional rights of the Logothetis department in the MPI-BC.
More broadly, we urge the scientific community to address the fact that there are no widely-accepted standards for institutional response to campaigns and actions by anti-animal research groups that target individual scientists. Laboratory infiltrations, release of edited videotapes, and unfounded or minor animal welfare complaints are some of the many tactics used to distort facts and thereby diminish public support for ethical, humanely-conducted research with animals. The risks involved with such work cannot be assumed solely by scientists. Rather, it should be their institutions, scientific organizations, and the broader scientific community who together must share the burden and be prepared to defend and support scientific research. Professor Roberto Caminiti’s recent letter in Nature provides a timely and useful illustration of effective support from an institution.
The situation also raises concern and questions about the relative silence of many other animal researchers, particularly in Germany. Is there a fear of reprimand by the MPS, directly or indirectly? For those who remain silent, or those who believe this is an isolated case without potential to affect other research, there are many things to consider. Among them: Is the new philosophy and standard for research implied by the MPS actions meant to be that no risks are acceptable? If so, what are the consequences of a risk-free philosophy, not only if one is adopted by MPS, but also as a precedent for science more broadly? There are risks in scientific research, just as in all human endeavors. If the precedent set by MPS and the events unfolding now is that risks are unacceptable, the scientific community as a whole must speak to make clear how this will affect science and the public broadly. That includes serious consideration of what research will not be undertaken, or will be discouraged, and how scientific discoveries and medical advances will be jeopardized. These are consequences that extend far beyond MPS.
We urge scientists and scientific organizations together to call on MPS to change their course and provide immediate and visible response to the grave concerns and questions raised here.