Transformation of the Leibniz Association towards Environmental Sustainability

Kristine Oevel is a doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (FMP) in Berlin, where she works in a wet biochemical laboratory. She coordinates the Working Group (WG) Sustainability of the Leibniz PhD and PostDoc Networks. The WG has been working on a Position Paper on the Transformation of the Leibniz Association towards Environmental Sustainability, which is now available.

Read about the contents and motivation behind the paper in the following interview:

What was your main motivation for founding a Working Group for Sustainability?

My personal journey in sustainability began approximately four years ago. It was the little things in the lab that annoyed me, like the amounts of plastics that were used on a daily basis, or that instruments were never switched off in the evenings. Motivated by making a difference, my colleagues and I spearheaded a grassroots initiative that has now grown into an institute-wide movement. That sounds really great now, but the beginnings were coupled with a lot of frustration, snarky comments, and doubts. Coming from this experience of a struggling bottom-up initiative, I wanted to collect the information and knowledge that we gathered and share it with like-minded colleagues inside the Leibniz Association and beyond. This led to the founding of our Working Group on Sustainability inside the Leibniz PhD and PostDoc Networks. In this group, our major focus is to emphasise the importance of environmental sustainability in our research practices.

What inspired the idea of preparing a sustainability position paper?

The preparation of a position paper was the most straightforward solution for our overarching goals. First, we wanted to raise awareness for sustainability in research, as well as to collect our knowledge and make it accessible to everyone. From my personal experience, many people want the academic system to be more environmentally conscious, but most of the time, they do not know how to start an initiative, or how to convince or motivate their colleagues. We sincerely hope that our paper can ease this process by pointing out that many transformations do not need financial investments but rather a change in mindset (s. immediate measures in the paper). Second, apart from the change in mindset, there also needs to be a systemic change in the way we equip, perform, fund and teach research. While we commend employee-based grassroots initiatives at institutes, they definitely also need nurturing from the top. Therefore, with this paper, we want to motivate the Leibniz Association and its institutes to take the necessary steps towards climate neutrality and realise their responsibility towards society.

The Leibniz Association brings together institutes from a wide range of scientific fields including research museums. How can this broadness be taken into account in a position paper?

We are fortunate that in our WG, both doctoral and postdoctoral researchers from many Leibniz institutes with diverse research backgrounds come together. This is why it also became quite evident from the beginning that there is no single solution in the form of a sustainability strategy that will fit all Leibniz institutions. But, in our view, the diversity of the Association is actually an advantage: the Leibniz Association itself harbours many experts on many diverse sustainability topics (see Leibniz research networks) like mobility, energy transitions, etc. as well as an established network dedicated to sustainable development. Thus, the knowledge for sustainable transformation is actually already available in-house, we just need to connect expertise with demand, follow our own science and act on it.

Even though diversity is a crucial factor within the Leibniz Association, are there important common aspects of institutes where we need to do something for sustainability?

Individual institutes will have specific requirements depending on their research focus: fieldworkers are frequent fliers, while lab researchers use many consumables and energy-intensive instruments. However, before identifying specific requirements, there are common steps all Leibniz institutes have to undertake: Every institute should calculate its environmental footprint and identify institute-specific largest contributions because these sectors have the largest reduction potentials. Based on such an analysis, institutes have to formulate institute-specific strategies and reduction targets so that the Leibniz Association can become climate-neutral by 2035. Concurrently, concrete and meaningful actions based on constantly updated evidence must be implemented in a broad scheme. This includes the sectors of energy and building infrastructure, resource consumption, research and administrative processes, event management, mobility, and knowledge transfer, for which we propose specific immediate and long-term goals and actions for the Leibniz Association and its institutes. One common instrument to overview and monitor such sustainable transformation is to establish sustainability offices at each institute. Focusing personnel and financial means on such a position will streamline the implementation of measures and underline the importance of sustainability in research.

What are the roles of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in the sustainability process? Do we have any influence at all?

Of course, sustainability is a topic that is not specific to postdoctoral and doctoral researchers. However, the influence of early researchers should not be underestimated. Again, coming back to the personal experience from our grassroots initiative at my institute: what was laughed at in the beginning has now blossomed into a vital part of our internal institute structure, something that is taken pride in, communicated about, and is financially supported. And this was all started by PhD candidates and PostDocs. So do not be intimidated! There is definitely strength in numbers, and early career researchers are the biggest community at research institutes. Furthermore, the people most affected by any sustainable systemic change in policies or funding distribution will be us, researchers. Therefore, it is important that our voices are heard and that we express them loudly and clearly. We cannot forget that our generation and future ones will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made today.

If you could change one thing in the German academic system today, what would that be?

If the current energy crisis has taught us one thing, it is that we can immediately implement drastic reductions in energy consumption for financial savings without sacrificing research quality and integrity. At the same time, most energy-saving actions also correlate with environmental benefits (lower emissions from energy generation, reduction in waste, etc.). Most importantly, if we can drastically change the way we perform research because of financial motivation, we should be able to perform similar drastic transformations for our planet’s future. Therefore, one thing that must be changed now is the willingness to change at all levels. The urgency of our environmental emergency and the climate crisis must be accepted, and immediate actions must be implemented. Long-term sustainability has to be put above short-term money; investing in a sustainable academic system now will in turn benefit both our planet and budgets in the future.

What do you hope this position paper will achieve concerning sustainability in research?

In our opinion, this position paper presents a blueprint on how to decarbonize the academic system, describes its interdependencies, and offers room for debate with all members of our scientific community and beyond. We sincerely hope that it is an immediate call to action; it evokes a new way of thinking and behaviour at Leibniz institutes that paves the way and inspires other actors to follow along.

A doctoral researchers guide to contracts and salaries

Discussions about the salary of doctoral researchers (DRs) have been going on for a long time, but with rising living costs, they are becoming more and more urgent for many of us. The payment of DRs is usually decided by their institute and supervisor. DRs are usually classified in E13 TVL, but the working hours vary hugely depending on the institution and subject, leading to different net incomes for the same work.

The 2019 survey “Being a Doctoral Researcher in the Leibniz Association: 2019 Leibniz DR Network Survey Report” shows that only 12.5% of doctoral researchers receive payment for 76-100 %, 20% receive 66-75%, 41% receive 65% and, 26% receive 50%. In contrast to the contract situation, only 5% of doctoral researchers work less than 30 hours; the majority (49%) is working 40-50 hours, with another 15% even exceeding these hours.

This situation is often reasoned using the DFG “Hinweis zur Bezahlung von Promovierenden” and the Besserstellungsverbot, arguing that Leibniz cannot pay more than the usual salary at universities. However, the DFG does not offer an explanation for the difference in salary. This leads to a situation in which DR with the same actual working hours and tasks (research, supervision, equipment supervision, teaching, tutoring etc.) are paid differently allowing a huge variation in living standards and social security, which is correlated to mental health.

In our opinion, having a stable contract, healthy working conditions, and fair payment across all our sections would lead to an increase in mental health as well as a higher scientific output, since our DRs can focus purely on research without existential worries. In addition, it would make Leibniz more appealing as an employer, leading to more applications and better candidates as well as a higher motivation to continue work within the Leibniz network, again resulting in higher quality research and therefore more funding opportunities. In addition, power abuse could be reduced by having a clear contract situation for all DRs and therefore no influence of the supervisor on the financial stability of a DR’s life.

In addition, current decisions of the EuGH and BAG have clarified that every employee has to have a working time tracking system. This is established to prevent exploitation at the workplace and ensure mental and physical health of all employees. The current contract situation does not allow for DRs to follow this law, since working hours are exceeded in nearly all cases and only in some institutes DRs are asked to time track their working hours. Leibniz could open itself to lawsuits or recurring legal problems under these conditions. One solution to this problem would also be a full-time contract for our doctoral researcher which would go along with the goal of Good Science Needs Good Working Conditions”.

We are advocating for:

  1. 100% contracts for all DRs in all subjects and institutes across Leibniz.
  2. A contract length of at least 4 years, since the average duration of a doctoral degree in Germany, is 5.7 years.
  3. Stipends and contract holders should have the same benefits, full salary, and full social security coverage.
  4. Trust working hours (tracked by the DR) and flexible working time (taking overtime as free time later) – Allowing for experiments and field trips to continue without legal problems, but still ensuring mental and physical health under working law conditions.

How can the budget management be improved and lead to better working conditions? 

It is a norm within an academic institution to have PIs, and lab supervisors with control over expenditures in the lab. This includes paying for the lab staff, publication costs, travel to conferences costs, field research costs, equipment costs, computers, and other supplies. The biggest one of these funding “sinks” is human resources. Having a highly skilled research assistant is expensive, and often PIs find it hard to designate a large sum of their starter money/ grant money to hiring a skilled RA. If the funds are insufficient, or due to other reasons doctoral researchers (DRs) are often hired as a low-cost option to carry out research. 

Budget management directly impacts doctoral researchers, as the ability of the PI to fund their research depends on it. We know from our surveys that unstable financial conditions harm the mental health of the DRs and act as a Power Abuse tool, thereby negatively affecting DRs productivity. In the worst case, in a poorly managed lab, there are not often enough funds to pay doctoral researchers to finish their work after handing over the dissertation, or they might find themselves relying on third-party stipends, which have a fixed term contract period. Regarding the funding situation, DRs do not make high on many agendas.

PI, at the time of their employment as a lab head, has already secured several streams of funding (grants, starting funds, prizes etc.). Stretching some of these funds are often perceived as necessary to launch a successful research program. Managing a budget is integral, and more importantly, knowing how to manage the budget is very important. A PI rarely learns about this as a postdoctoral researcher. 

Here we suggest how this can be avoided so that a better system can be built where the PI and the DR feel motivated and satisfied to conduct meaningful research.

  • Guideline 1: budget management strategies and guidelines must be shared with early career PIs. And these guidelines can engrave a realistic expectation about the proportion of the budget being utilized in one place or another. This also should include a safety net payment system for doctoral researchers, which could be accessed during extensions on dissertations. 
  • Guideline 2: Increase communication within the department among PIs. Talking and exchanging knowledge about budget sharing must be integrated into the work environment. 


Steering Committee meets with the head of the Leibniz Leadership Academy

On March 2nd, members of the PhD Network Steering Committee (SC) met with Marvin Bähr of the Leibniz Head Office and Claudia Müller, Head of the Leibniz Leadership Academy, to discuss topics that could be covered in the Leadership Academy for institute directors, project principal investigators, and research group leaders. The SC proposed several ideas, including strategies for addressing diversity in more tangible ways; enhancing measures to prevent power abuse; establishing limits on the number of PhD candidates that leaders can supervise with already full schedules; and offering leadership coaching to PhDs to promote effective academic leadership.

11 February, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

11 February is acclaimed by the United Nations as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It highlights women’s and girls’ contributions to science and calls for reducing the gender gap at all levels of academic research and in the industry. Statistics from 2019 confirm women’s under-representation in research in Germany: female researchers make up only 28% of total researchers, which is one of the lowest rates in the EU. The federal data on students’ gender is more optimistic and equal: girls’ proportion in the winter semester 2021/2022 was 50,2%. Only 26,3% of the highest academic grade (professorship), however, are women. Factors explaining this enormous discrepancy are rooted in socioeconomic rationale, that follows the “Gender-Pay-Gap”, the “Gender-Care-Gap” and a well-known glass ceiling.

In the Leibniz Association, female Doctoral Researchers (DRs) are strongly represented among all institutes where they outnumber male colleagues. The visible difference, however, concerns the research within Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Engineering. As the results of the survey from 2021 show, in the institutes from this section, female DRs make up roughly 33% of the total doctoral researchers. The similar, low representation of female researchers is also reflected in data on the gender of supervisors. This result is not surprising, but it instead resonates with the nationwide issue of female leadership in science. To foster research talents and support women on their career paths, the Leibniz Association offers a one-year mentoring programme for female postdoc researchers that ensures the transfer of knowledge and skills related to leadership and obtaining a professorship. The versatility of career-supporting female DRs raises hopes of retaining them in the academic environment. According to the survey from 2021, more than half of female DRs at Leibniz consider pursuing their career in academia (male DRs: 57%), whereas interest in non-academic research was declared by nearly 80% of researchers (both genders).

Statement of the President of the Leibniz Association Prof. Dr. Martina Brockmeier:

Question: Which advice can you give to the current female doctoral researcher community that you received from your supervisor during your PhD?

Prof. Brockmeier: “One piece of advice that my supervisor once gave me has been particularly important to me: Trust in your abilities and strengths and do not shy away from challenges and resistance!“

In spite of visible efforts to reduce the gender gap in research, there is still much to be done in this area. It would seem to be a good idea to strengthen current development programmes with a gender focus. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science poses an opportunity to recognise their role in research and remind stakeholders and policymakers about the urgency of taking necessary steps towards encouraging girls to pursue their careers in science and reducing systematic barriers.

Author: Izabela Paszko M.A (Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History, Institut für Zeitgeschichte – IfZ and part of the Arbeitskreis “Diversity”)


Avoiding a mental health crisis in academia (and beyond)

In the latest issue of the Leibniz Magazine, an article was published, in which a doctoral researcher, a resilience researcher and three managers were interviewed on the topic of mental health at the workplace. Among them Pankhuri Saxena, a former Spokesperson (2020/2021) of the Leibniz PhD Network.

The number of people missing work due to mental health issues is rising, a trend not only present in science and research. Due to the increasingly competitive nature of academia, early-career researchers increasingly suffer from uncertainty, pressure, and stress. The intense pressure and demands of a doctorate can take a toll on a person’s mental well-being, leading to symptoms of anxiety and depression. If you are interested in the interview have a read here.

In November 2021 the “Guide to Mental Health during the PhD” was passed by the Leibniz Association. It was collated by Sebastian Lentz (director of the Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde) in close collaboration with Leibniz institutes and the Leibniz PhD Network. The guide states three fields of action: raising awareness, prevention, and counselling, while it also provides recommendations of measures to be taken. You can find the guide here.

Yet, Jan Klenke (former Spokesperson 2020/2021) critically comments:

“There are still many PhDs on scholarships (i.e., without an official working contract and in voluntary statutory health insurance). This situation enhances the described (mental health) problems in this group. At the same time, this group isn’t on anyone’s budget plan and is usually not mentioned in target agreements. In many cases, the doctoral students are without proper guidance, even if they ask for more supervision.”

Mental health (during the PhD) remains an important topic, seemingly for the foreseeable future. Let us know your ideas and comments on the topic. What would you need to reduce mental stress during your PhD? Leave us a comment or get in touch on our social media platforms.