This must not set a precedent

The President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Stratmann, on the most recent developments surrounding the decision made by Nikos Logothetis

May 13, 2015

How can research organizations protect their own scientists against aggressive and unfair practices of animal rights activists? This question has been on my mind and the minds of many other scientists in the Max Planck Society even before September of last year, when animal rights activists set their sights on the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. Previously, Wolf Singer in Frankfurt and Andreas Kreiter at the University of Bremen had also been subjected to their attacks.

Yet the events unfolding in Tübingen are even more revealing: they highlight that animal rights activists are  nowadays networking on an international scale. The German animal rights group “SOKO Tierschutz” has been receiving advice and support from its British colleagues, who have been calling attention to themselves for years with covert operations targeting renowned research institutions in the United Kingdom. We are dealing with a network that has been professionally set up, and it is questionable whether those involved always act purely in the interest of animal protection – after all, there are concrete financial interests at stake here as well. And so far the scientific community has done little to counter this development.

Despite strong backing from the mayor of Tübingen and the state government of Baden-Württemberg – for which I would like to express my sincere gratitude – and despite numerous measures undertaken by the Max Planck Society over the past few months in support of its Director Nikos Logothetis, we were not able to put an end to the ongoing reprehensible threats, insults and abuses to which he and many other employees on campus were subjected. These defamations are directed at them from behind the cloak of anonymity via e‑mail and social media. We thought that the medieval pillory was a relic of history, yet now we have to witness first-hand that public shaming is being revived in the Age of the Internet, manifesting itself in new forms with disastrous ramifications.

Nikos Logothetis no longer wanted to expose himself to this surge of hatred and therefore decided to discontinue his research on primates. However, he issued a statement in which he unequivocally reiterates that he remains convinced of the necessity of testing on primates for research purposes. We regret his decision and are very much affected by it. Yet there is one upside to this new development: it is a wake-up call for us, for policy-makers and for the country as a whole. In fact, it has roused scientists all over the world. As a result, more than four thousand researchers from around the globe have followed the call of the Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neuroscience in Tübingen and expressed their solidarity with Nikos Logothetis.

We cannot allow dubious campaigns, fought with unfair means, to harm legally legitimate and internationally accepted research. The Max Planck Society will not bow to this pressure and will continue to rely on primate and other animal research in certain cases where we deem it necessary for the advancement of science. The challenge will now be to find ways to better protect our researchers in future, while at the same time maintaining the openness of our Institutes. We have never wanted to wall ourselves in at our Institutes, and we do not intend to do so now: I am convinced that the order of the day is not to conduct research furtively, but to consciously and actively involve the general public.

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