For a second time, archaeologist Nicole Boivin has been removed as director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (MPI-SHH), following a vote on March 25 by the governing board of the Max Planck Society (MPG).
The decision is another twist in a case that has drawn wide attention in Germany and has become a headache for MPG, the country’s premier basic science organization. It has also created an atmosphere of uncertainty for dozens of researchers at MPI-SHH, a leading center for archeology and archaeogenetics. “The feeling at the institute is one of confusion, not a sense that things have been righted or that anyone has trust in the process,” one MPI-SHH researcher says.
Boivin was first removed from her directorship by the MPG president in October 2021, following an investigation that lasted nearly 3 years and found evidence of bullying and scientific misconduct. The Canadian archaeologist sued the society, and a Berlin court reinstated her barely 1 month later, ruling that MPG’s president hadn’t followed the society’s own rules in removing her and that she should be able to continue in her position while her case was being decided .
According to MPG bylaws, its Senate — a panel of prominent scientists, government officials, and industry representatives — is the ultimate arbiter of a director’s contract. And so, on March 25, following a 32-to-1 vote with three abstentions, Boivin was once again demoted and stripped of leadership responsibilities. She remains a researcher at MPG.
Boivin plans to continue her legal efforts to reclaim her directorship. “It is extremely disappointing that the MPG would not agree to repeated calls over the last months for an external review of this highly problematic case, or leave me in my position while matters were resolved in court,” she wrote in an email to Science. “The case urgently highlights the need for independent tribunals that can investigate deeply contested cases like mine.”
The MPG Senate’s vote was based on a summary of the findings of a commission led by Ulrich Sieber, director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law, and Professor Silja Vöneky of the University of Freiburg. The commission found it found evidence of a scientific misconduct by Boivin, including claiming credit for the work of others, and a workplace bullying of institute staff and younger researchers. Boivin has denied the allegations. The commission did not share details of the report with the MPG Senate “because it contained confidential personnel information… and not all witnesses were willing to have their identities disclosed,” says MPG spokesperson Christina Beck.
MPG Senate member Ulrike Beisiegel, a former president of the University of Göettingen, voted against the demotion. She says she wasn’t given enough information to make an informed decision, nor was Boivin given a chance to make her case. “The Senate waved it through,” Beisiegel says. “There were two sides to the story, and that is reason enough to have an independent investigation.” Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biology and a nonvoting member of the MPG Senate, is critical of the way the case has been played out. “The Senate should have been voted before she was demoted the first time,” she says. “There were obvious mistakes in how they handled the whole thing. I think it has really damaged the society. ”
Over the past few months, the case has sparked discussion about MPG’s treatment of women at its many institutes. Just over 15% of society’s 304 directors are women. In an open letter in the fall of 2021 that mentioned the Boivin case without addressing its merits, nearly 150 prominent women scientists from around the world pointed out that recent demotions at MPG have disproportionately impacted women.
But William Taylor, an archaeozoologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says Boivin’s case needs to be separated from allegations of MPG’s systemic bias against women. Taylor was a witness in the Sieber-Vöneky investigation and a member of Boivin’s department until 2019. “There’s an important point to be made that the Max Planck system and science in general are failing to support women scientists,” he says. “However, this is a poor argument for failing to protect those that find themselves in an abusive work environment, many of whom are young female scholars themselves.”
A researcher affiliated with the institute who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retaliation agreed with the commission’s conclusions. “The fact that MPG voted to demote Dr. Boivin twice… speaks very strongly towards the merit of their case against her,” she told Science.
Launched in 2014, MPI-SHH, in Jena, Germany, was supposed to explore human history through a blend of genetics, archeology, and linguistics; its multimillion-dollar archeology budget is one of the world’s largest. But in 2020, the genetics and linguistics departments relocated to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in nearby Leipzig after conflicts between Boivin and the two other MPI-SHH directors, Johannes Krause and Russell Gray. That left Boivin as sole director at MPI-SHH.
Some of the 100 or so remaining researchers and graduate students are planning to find new jobs or leave academia altogether. MPG Vice President Ulman Lindenberger, who is taking over from Boivin as interim director, tried to reassure staff about the institute’s future in an email announcing Boivin’s demotion on March 28th. “I would also like to reiterate once more that the Max Planck Society will hold on to the Institute,” he wrote.