Embattled Max Planck neuroscientist quits primate research

nicoslogothetisBERLIN—A neuroscientist who has been the target of animal rights activists says he is giving up on primate research. Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, says he will conclude his current experiments on macaques “as quickly as possible” and then shift his research to rodent neural networks. In a letter last week to fellow primate researchers, Logothetis cites a lack of support from colleagues and the wider scientific community as key factors in his decision. In particular, he says the Max Planck Society—and other organizations—should pursue criminal charges against the activists who target researchers.

Logothetis’s research on the neural mechanisms of perception and object recognition has used rhesus macaques with electrode probes implanted in their brains. The work was the subject of a broadcast on German national television in September that showed footage filmed by an undercover animal rights activist working at the institute. The video purported to show animals being mistreated.

Logothetis has said the footage is inaccurate, presenting a rare emergency situation following surgery as typical and showing stress behaviors deliberately prompted by the undercover caregiver. (His written rebuttal is here.) The broadcast triggered protests, however, and it prompted several investigations of animal care practices at the institute. Investigations by the Max Planck Society and animal protection authorities in the state of Baden-Württemberg found no serious violations of animal care rules. A third investigation by local Tübingen authorities that led to a police raid at the institute in late January is still ongoing.

Logothetis’s letter is addressed to about 20 fellow members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences who had written statements of support for him to the Max Planck Society. In it, he says he contacted local animal care authorities on 22 April to discuss a plan for ending his macaque work while still caring for animals that have been involved in the research, including those that have received neural implants.

The society is “one of the best scientific organizations worldwide,” Logothetis wrote, but it has failed to take concrete steps against the activists. “I am no longer willing or able to accept the never-ending stream of abuse from animal activists toward myself and my co-workers while seeing them encouraged to increase their aggressive activities by the tolerance and very slow reactions of scientific organizations. There is a clear lack of consequences for illegal actions such as infiltration, violation of privacy, theft of documents, and even intentionally caused distress to animals in order to film supposed animal torture or abnormal behavior,” the letter states.

Logothetis’s letter also faults his scientific colleagues in Tübingen for distancing themselves from the controversy. The neighboring Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology posted a disclaimer on its website emphasizing that there are no monkeys at the institute, he notes, and colleagues at the nearby Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research refused to issue a declaration of support.

The letter was not intended to be made public, Logothetis told ScienceInsider, and he regrets that it has been circulated beyond the people to whom he addressed it. He stresses that the problem of inaction is not specific to the Max Planck Society. “In my view organizations worldwide must change strategy immediately. Filing charges against infiltrators should be a ‘must’ whether or not radical activists manage to escape consequences in the first trials. In our case, there was more than enough evidence to support a number of accusations,” he says.

Max Planck did consider pressing charges against the undercover former employee, a spokesperson wrote to ScienceInsider, but “experienced external experts strongly advised against taking such a step given that the chances of success in a case like this are very low.” Instead, the society focused on “communication of the real facts, an informed public debate, transparency in what we are doing at the Institute and de-escalation—considering the poisoned atmosphere, the Max Planck Society did not want to fire up the situation.”

The society issued a statement on 1 May saying that it regrets Logothetis’s decision. “The Max Planck Society and its president has at all times fully supported the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen,” the spokesperson adds, including hiring “an experienced conflict manager who provided guidance and support to Nikos Logothetis over the past few months.”