Celebrated empathy expert ‘bullied and intimidated’ colleagues

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Tania Singer, a celebrated neuroscientist and director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, is known as one of the world’s foremost experts on empathy, ‘terrified, intimidated and bullied’ her colleagues, reports Science Mag.

In her research, Singer has sought to demonstrate that meditation can make people more kind and caring, writes Science Mag. The title of a profile of Singer written in 2013 summed up her public image: Concentrating on Kindness.

But, the report says, eight former and current colleagues say in interviews that inside her lab, it was a very different story. The researchers, all but one of whom insisted on remaining anonymous because they feared for their careers, describe a group gripped by fear of their boss. “Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears,” one colleague says.

Singer, one of the most high-profile female researchers in the Max Planck Society (MPG), sometimes made harsh comments to women who became pregnant, multiple lab members are quoted in the report as saying. “People were terrified. They were really, really afraid of telling her about their pregnancies,” one former colleague says. “For her, having a baby was basically you being irresponsible and letting down the team,” says another, who became a mother while working in Singer’s department.

The report says Singer, who declined to answer questions for this story, is on a one-year sabbatical, but her colleagues say they are speaking out now because MPG plans to eventually allow her to return to her lab.

Singer has acknowledged making mistakes in the past. “Problems associated to my exhaustion due to having to carry and be responsible for (a) huge and complex study,” were partly to blame, she wrote in a 12 February 2017 email to representatives of the department who had complained about working conditions to the institute’s scientific advisory board. The report says in a 7 August letter, Singer’s lawyer denied allegations of bullying, however. The letter said Singer had “apologised deeply” during a 2017 mediation process and had taken responsibility for the problems, for instance by asking for the sabbatical and the appointment of a temporary replacement. It also suggested that the allegations against Singer came from a “subgroup with its own strong interests and group dynamics.”

In a statement also issued on 7 August, MPG acknowledged it had learned of the allegations against Singer last year and said the society’s vice president, Bill Hansson, had investigated them, but that details are confidential. MPG says that “to calm the situation down,” it agreed to Singer’s sabbatical, which took effect in January.

The report says in a plan presented to the researchers on 25 July, MPG said it would separate Singer from her current colleagues and allow her to set up a new, smaller research group in Berlin for 2 to 3 years while the postdocs and PhD students in Leipzig finish their projects and move on. (The Leipzig group, which once numbered more than 20 scientists, has dwindled to just five.) She would then return to her lab.

“It appears the Max Planck Society decided it would rather sacrifice another generation of students than risk a scandal,” says one former colleague. Asked how MPG would ensure that future students are treated better, a spokesperson says details of the plan are still being discussed.

The report says Singer, the daughter of celebrated neuroscientist Wolf Singer, helped found a new field called social neuroscience; she rose to prominence with her work on empathy, including a landmark study with colleagues at the University College London in 2004 that showed watching a loved one experience pain activates the same brain areas as feeling physical pain directly.

In 2013, she started a hugely ambitious study, The ReSource Project, in which 160 participants were trained for 9 months to demonstrate the power of meditation. The study highlighted some of Singer’s strengths, colleagues say. “She’s creative, she can be charming, she knows how to make contacts and get resources. It’s a gift and it was necessary to make a project like this happen,” one colleague says. “Her superpower is vision,” another adds. “That original team of people that she put together was totally incredible.” Several people in her lab recall an impassioned speech Singer gave after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, in which she argued that only a study like ReSource could prevent such acts in the future.

But colleagues say in the report that working with Singer was always difficult. She wanted to be in control of even the most minute research details but was often not available to discuss them. In-person meetings could quickly turn into a nightmare, one colleague says: “She gets extremely emotional and when that turns dark it is terrifying.”

Another co-worker describes what happened after he told Singer some people in her group were unhappy: “She was very hurt by this and started crying and screaming,” he says. “It escalated to the extent that she left the room and went door to door in the institute in our department, crying, yelling to the people in the room ‘Are you happy here?’ When she came back, she said: ‘I just asked and everyone said they’re happy so it’s obviously you that’s the problem.’” (A colleague who says he was present corroborates the story.)

The report says almost every current or former lab member brought up Singer’s treatment of pregnant women; the issue was also on a list of grievances that lab members say they drew up after a meeting with the scientific advisory board in February 2017 to record what was said. “Pregnancy and parental leave are received badly and denied/turned into accusations,” the notes say.

Bethany Kok, a former lab member who agreed to speak on the record because she is no longer working in neuroscience, says Singer reacted kindly when she first told her she was pregnant with twins. But the next day, Kok says, “She started screaming at me how she wasn’t running a charity, how I was a slacker and that I was going to work twice as hard for the time I would be gone.” A few weeks later, Kok says, she miscarried one of the twins and missed a lab meeting for an urgent medical appointment. “I got an email from Tania telling me that she wasn’t paying me to go to the doctor, that clearly I wasn’t using good judgment, and I was no longer allowed to go to the doctor during work hours.” (Kok says she no longer has access to the email.)

According to the report, Singer’s lawyer says Singer never discriminated against pregnant women or any other group, and that events described by others “either did not happen or they happened very differently than described.”

Scientific discussions could also get overheated, lab members say. “It was very difficult to tell her if the data did not support her hypothesis,” says one researcher who worked with Singer. Singer’s lawyer stresses that no rules of scientific conduct were violated and that the institute’s scientific advisory board had rated the work of Singer’s department as “excellent.”

The report says contemporaneous notes from the researchers who took part in the 2017 meeting with the scientific advisory board – held after years of informal discussions and talks with an ombudsman that had led nowhere – include numerous other complaints, including “emotional abuse, threats, devaluation of work, and personal abilities.”

“Working with Tania is becoming increasingly difficult,” the lab members wrote after the meeting. “We represent the entire department. We would like some change but are unsure of how to approach the issue due to fear of retaliation.”

“One problem surely is that I have clearly underestimated the challenges associated with our ReSource study,” Singer wrote in the email she sent lab members afterward. She noted that “the conflict between the project’s need for long-term continuity and loyalty on the one hand and the researchers’ own divergent needs to move on with their own careers and lives.”

According to the report, several people who attended the sessions says that six meetings with a mediator in the first half of 2017 did little to improve the situation. Afterward, Hansson launched his investigation, but in December 2017, scientists at the institute were informed that MPG President Martin Stratmann had taken the matter into his own hands. On 20 December, Singer wrote to the group that she would be on a sabbatical for all of 2018, with former MPG director Wolfgang Prinz taking over some of her duties.

The report says, according to official minutes from the 25 July meeting, the separation plan presented 2 weeks ago, which would take effect in January 2019, has two goals: “1. Unencumbered continuation of everyone’s work. 2. An opportunity for Tania Singer to have an unencumbered new start.”

Singer “has learned the lesson that groups that are too big carry the risk of losing contact with co-workers,” her lawyer writes. “A good work environment and dealing with each other respectfully are important to her.”

Several researchers say they are disappointed in MPG. “I had hoped that they take problems at their institutes seriously and act not only on the behalf of their directors but equally their employees. However, every decision was always dragged out, communication was non-transparent and top-down, and then finally a solution was presented to the employees that is really mostly a solution for Tania,” one says.

The report says several other scandals have recently rocked the prestigious MPG, which has an €1.8bn annual budget and runs 84 independent institutes. Nikos Logothetis, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, was indicted in February after accusations from animal welfare activists; the US Society for Neuroscience and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies sharply criticised MPG recently for not defending him and his colleagues adequately.

Also, this year, allegations of bullying and sexual harassment at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, emerged. Guinevere Kauffmann, the director accused of bullying, received coaching and daily monitoring and now leads a drastically reduced group. Stratmann is quoted in the report as saying that the incident had shown that the society’s procedures for dealing with complaints did not work well. “I have to concede that, and for this reason we will improve it.”

Many say the years spent in Singer’s lab have left them disillusioned about science. “If the Max Planck Society has as its objective to create scientists, then this PhD experience is not the way to do it,” says one.

Abstract
Our ability to have an experience of another’s pain is characteristic of empathy. Using functional imaging, we assessed brain activity while volunteers experienced a painful stimulus and compared it to that elicited when they observed a signal indicating that their loved one—present in the same room—was receiving a similar pain stimulus. Bilateral anterior insula (AI), rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), brainstem, and cerebellum were activated when subjects received pain and also by a signal that a loved one experienced pain. AIand ACC activation correlated with individual empathy scores. Activity in the posterior insula/secondary somatosensory cortex, the sensorimotor cortex (SI/MI), and the caudal ACC was specific to receiving pain. Thus, a neural response in AIand rostral ACC, activated in common for “self” and “other” conditions, suggests that the neural substrate for empathic experience does not involve the entire “pain matrix.” We conclude that only that part of the pain network associated with its affective qualities, but not its sensory qualities, mediates empathy.

Authors
Tania Singer, Ben Seymour, John O’Doherty, Holger Kaube, Raymond J Dolan, Chris D Frith

Science Mag report
Science 2004 study abstract


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