It’s time for another example of abusive academia: in this case, it’s a woman, Guinevere Kauffmann, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany who has been bullying and flinging racist emails about.
The research shows how employees and students are treated at one of the most highly respected research institutes in the world. While the institute in Garching outwardly presents itself as the cutting edge of German research, young scientists talk of despotism, fear of superiors, and destroyed careers.
The accusations against the director are only the latest in a global debate about bullying and abuse of power in science. Women physicists and astrophysicists are making harassment allegations public under the hashtag #AstroSH. For example, famous physicist Lawrence Krauss was placed on temporary leave at Arizona State University following accusations of sexual harassment. And astrophysicist Rachael Livermore was harassed by a colleague in a scientific article so severely that she has since left the field of science.
In early February German news magazine Der Spiegel reported similar accusations at a Max Planck institute, yet without naming the specific institute (Astrophysics) or the professor (Kauffmann).
It sounds like this branch of the Max Planck has utterly miserably working conditions. This is not how science thrives.
“This matter with Guinevere Kauffmann and her husband is by far the worst. But the prevailing culture in the entire institute is bad. Things happen there that aren’t okay,” said Hans. Andressa Jendreieck agreed. “I get the impression many of the advisors are bullying their employees.”
All nine scientists who spoke with BuzzFeed News Germany say that the institute is profoundly hierarchical. You either endure it, or you break.
“Hierarchical” is the magic word. Science isn’t a top-down process, and when you give select individuals so much power and control, it doesn’t lead to greater productivity. It breaks everything.
I’ve worked in an institute that was profoundly egalitarian — there were PIs, sure, but their role, for which they were respected, was to take on more responsibility, rather than more “power”. Everyone was fully aware that the goal of the institute was to work as a team to do great science, which meant that everyone, undergraduates, grad students, post-docs, technicians, and PIs had essential roles in getting that done — and taking a dump on someone at a lower level in the imaginary hierarchy was disruptive and self-defeating. All human beings in the great machine of science must be regarded as equals, or the enterprise will fail.
This is why the myth of the Great Men of Science is so wrong and damaging. It leads to pathologies like the situation at the Max Planck in Garching. Good science is collaborative and cooperative.