'Confidence in us must never be called into doubt'
President Stratman in an interview with duz magazine
duz: Mr. Stratmann, Nikos Logothetis blames the MPG for not doing enough to protect him after the monkey film was aired on television. What is your view of the situation?
Stratmann: We are aware of the fact that scientists, who conduct animal experiments, are subjected to particular pressure. They therefore deserve full support from the MPG. There has been a comprehensive range of support measures for the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen. The MPG has, for example, provided the Director with an acclaimed and internationally experienced crisis manager, who supported for several months. There has also been staff support from the Administrative Headquarters, as well as thorough legal consultation and further HR and financial measures. For example, we have arranged for additional expert staff to be hired at the Institute. Among those staff members are an animal facility manager, an Animal Welfare Officer and a PR advisor. To discontinue experiments with non-human primates entirely, and to limit research to work with rodents, was a decision that Mr. Logothetis made by himself in April 2015. We found this very regrettable.
duz: Why are animal experiments with non-human primates so important?
Stratmann: This type of research has great potential for biomedical concepts. Vaccine research or the development of new effective antibiotics, for example against multi-resistant germs, will not be able to manage without modern primate research and genetically modified non-human primates. The history and the success of HIV research are textbook examples of this. However, research with non-human primates is decreasing in Germany and in Europe. This may in part be due to the critical mindset of the population. Outside of Europe, this type of research is meanwhile increasing. Research work with genetically modified non-human primates is already taking place, especially in Japan and in China. One reason for this is the realization that mice and rats are not always suitable as models for studying the brain, and in particular higher cognitive processes and psychiatric disorders.
“This is why we must ensure that confidence in us is never called into doubt”
duz: Logothetis felt pressured by the MPG to resign from his position or to leave, in order to avert harm to the MPG. Where could the MPG have done better?
Stratmann: Should we have ignored a penalty order? Never before has a Max Planck Director been accused of culpable violations of animal welfare law, which has led to a penalty order. This has caused a heavy burden for Mr. Logothetis, but it has also placed considerable pressure on the MPG and all those involved in animal experiments. Following Mr. Logothetis’ appeal, we now have to await the outcome of the proceedings. However, we cannot simply carry on as though the penalty order was never issued. Animal experiments can only be conducted as part of basic research, if the society has great confidence in the responsible organization. This is why we must ensure that this confidence in us is never called into doubt. In October 2017, I therefore asked Mr. Logothetis to voluntarily refrain from conducting any animal experiments himself, and to suspend his supervision over practical execution of animal experiments in his Department until a decision has been made, regarding his appeal. This would have prevented harm for all parties involved. Unfortunately, Mr. Logothetis decided otherwise. The Executive Committee therefore decided to suspend Mr. Logothetis’ management function to an extent limited in duration and scope, for the event that a penalty order is actually issued.
duz: This means that he is no longer able to perform any research.
Stratmann: No, the MPG has not made its Director unable to perform any scientific work. The partial revocation of management functions means simply that Mr. Logothetis may no longer submit his own applications for animal experiments, and may not instruct his staff members while they perform animal experiments. He may still decide if – and which – animal experiments are conducted in his Department. And in his role as Director, he can obviously also influence the content framework. It goes without saying that he continues to be able to analyse data and to publish his work.
duz: International solidarity with Mr. Logothetis has been and continues to be strong. How severe is the loss of reputation suffered by the MPG?
Stratmann: I have only received a small number of letters, asking us to revise our decision. It has rather been the case that I had numerous conversations with peers within the MPG as well as members of the international community of scientists, to explain the situation and the findings based on which we are acting. Everybody expects the President of the MPG to back up his researchers, of course – especially those involved in animal experiments. And we have done so for many years, in the case of Nikos Logothetis. However, most people also understand that the credibility and reputation of the MPG are at stake, if evidence of possible misconduct is not pursued in a consistent manner. A penalty order must be considered such evidence, and it must be taken seriously by the Executive Committee, to fulfil its duty as a supervisory body.
duz: Is a future cooperation with Mr. Logothetis still conceivable?
Stratmann: We must not prejudge anyone, but we must also not make excuses for a possible case of misconduct. Until a legally valid judgement has been made, Mr. Logothetis must be assumed to be innocent – just as in any other case. We continue to support Mr. Logothetis, of course. We are currently investing a significant amount of money into a construction project for keeping rodents, which Mr. Logothetis applied for.
duz: Does the case of Mr. Logothetis not make it harder for the MPG to fulfil its aspiration to attract international top researchers?
Stratmann: We live in a constitutional democratic system that ensures academic freedom and therefore openness, without which knowledge-oriented and open-ended basic research is not possible. Obviously another side of this is a compliance with regulations. This openness is currently very attractive to many researchers. So I am not worried in this respect. We are currently conducting appointment negotiations with an excellent scientist from abroad. I hope to successfully conclude the appointment before the end of this year. This would provide for some fresh input for the MPI in Tübingen.
The interview was conducted by Benjamin Haerdle. He works in Leipzig as a journalist.
English translation of the German original article: Vertrauen in uns darf nie in Zweifel gezogen werden with permission of the publisher