August 9, 2018

SCIENCE: She’s the world’s top empathy researcher. But colleagues say she bullied and intimidated them.

Tania Singer, a celebrated neuroscientist and director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, is known as one of the world’s foremost experts on empathy. In her research, she has sought to demonstrate that meditation can make people more kind and caring. The title of a profile of Singer written by this reporter in 2013 summed up her public image: Concentrating on Kindness.

But inside her lab, it was a very different story, eight former and current colleagues say in interviews with Science. The researchers, all but one of whom insisted on remaining anonymous because they feared for their careers, describe a group gripped by fear of their boss. “Whenever anyone had a meeting with her there was at least an even chance they would come out in tears,” one colleague says.

Singer, one of the most high-profile female researchers in the Max Planck Society (MPG), sometimes made harsh comments to women who became pregnant, multiple lab members told Science. “People were terrified. They were really, really afraid of telling her about their pregnancies,” one former colleague says. “For her, having a baby was basically you being irresponsible and letting down the team,” says another, who became a mother while working in Singer’s department.

Are you really surprised to hear this?