Have you ever thought the problem might be…hierarchies?

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.


  1. chris61 says

    Good science is collaborative and cooperative.

    Good science can be collaborative and cooperative; it can also be competitive. Some people thrive in a competitive environment. I wasn’t one of them but I certainly knew people who did.

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Have you ever thought the problem might be…hierarchies?

    Ooo! Ooo! I know how to solve that problem!

    Kill all lobsters. Kill them with fire. Fire that heats water to the boiling point. Or an electrical element that does the same. Maybe even one of those fancy induction-thingies that turns the pan into its own electrical heating element to heat the water to boiling. Or however that works. The point is: kill them dead so their primate ancestors don’t found astrophysics institutes and end up abusing one another.

    I also have an 80 minute long video which explains how that idea is not at all a stupid response to abusive and racist employers among terrestrial air-breathers, so don’t take that one very, very wise statement out of context.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I should have said “primate descendants” but in context it’s still a brilliant observation.

  4. vucodlak says

    Hierarchies are part of it, but I’d put the blame on something even more basic: competition. We teach kids to compete practically from birth, even though cooperation is often the better strategy. We teach that competition is right and desirable, and often teach them that it’s the very best way of doing things. We teach them that being a winner means everything and losers are nothing. Then we organize huge portions of society around competition, no matter how little sense it makes to do so. As a result, we get hierarchies where the people with the most ruthless attitudes and behavior tend to rise to the top.

    The competitive instinct is something we should teach children (and adults) to control and suppress, same way we teach them not to beat the snot out of one another. It doesn’t matter if it’s ‘natural’ to compete- it’s not healthy for our society, and it’s not healthy for most of those who do it.

  5. chrislawson says

    I think some degree of hierarchy is essential to complex human projects just because there needs to be some organisational structure for things like the Apollo missions or developing a national highway network. The problem is that the power tends to coalesce at the top without accountability. Any hierarchical structure needs to have powerful circuit-breakers built in that cannot be easily bypassed. What we’re seeing in the US at the moment is (literal) constitutional unaccountability being used to strip out even more of those circuit-breakers.

  6. Paul K says

    I am in complete agreement with vucodlak at #5. I work with kids age five to ten, and I think maybe the most important thing I do with them is provide a competition-free space. I remind them regularly that winning is not important in most parts of their lives, and I suppress competition in every way I can. It’s not always easy because they have been taught to see the world in terms of who has more, does better, gets more, and on and on. And, boy, is winning pushed on them all the time. Giving, sharing, working together, saying nice things to each other, making sure everyone takes care of everyone else’s feelings; these bring way more happiness and feelings of worth and safety.

    So it gets done. Kids see the benefits. They feel them every day. But it’s a never-ending task, because selfishness has its rewards, too.

  7. says

    It’s early in the morning for me, but I seem to remember a saying (was it by Kropotkin?) about thebest system being despotism tempered with assassination???

  8. Daniel Dunér says

    I’ve been looking at the world through the lens of hierarchies for a few years (alongside lenses like feminism, class, skepticism etc.). After reading Ursula K LeGuin’s The Disspossessed and some Kropotkin and Chomsky, listening to and talking with different anarchists I’ve come to this conclusion.

    Hierarchies do indeed poison everything. Hierarchies are rarely, if ever, necessary. All of society could do without them on all levels. When people advocate for hierarchies it’s often an inabilitiy to make a distinction between administrative/organizational roles (“I’ve figured out a good way to do this”) and roles of hierarchical power (“do as I say, because I say so”).

    In other words, I’ve ended up as an anarchist, or anarchocommunist to be precise.