Tania Singer is known for her extensive, well-regarded research on the subject of human empathy. She’s argued that meditation can make people more kind and caring, and has given talks on the “neuroscience of compassion” at prominent venues like the World Economic Forum. She is also, according to eight current and former colleagues, a bully.
Co-workers say that Singer, who is currently on a one-year sabbatical from her position as director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, is known for leading meetings that leave her subordinates “in tears,” and that she’s been especially hard on employees who become pregnant. “For [Singer], having a baby was basically you being irresponsible and letting down the team,” one former colleague told Science.
Colleagues also say Singer was prone to screaming at them when challenged, and could become verbally and emotionally abusive. “It was very difficult to tell her if the data did not support her hypothesis,” said one researcher who’d worked with her.
Because Singer is expected to be welcomed back to the Max Planck Society (MPG) after her sabbatical, colleagues say they wanted to speak up now, before that happens. Last year, MPG vice-president Bill Hansson admitted that the institute had learned of the allegations against Singer. Hansson also said that these allegations were investigated, and that the conclusions found would be kept confidential. Singer’s sabbatical was encouraged in order to “to calm the situation down,” MPG told Science.
In early 2017, after years of more informal attempts to mediate the situation, lab members called for a meeting with MPG’s scientific advisory board to raise their concerns. This led to six meetings with a mediator, which lab members say did little to address the issues raised. In December, Singer announced her sabbatical. She has yet to comment publicly on this story, but previously acknowledged some mistakes in internal communications sent to MPG representatives, writing that “Problems associated to my exhaustion due to having to carry and be responsible for [a] huge and complex study” were partly to blame for her behavior. As of now, Singer is expected to return to work in January 2019, working with “a new, smaller” research group in Berlin.