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Press Release No. 9 | 5 April 2022
DFG and Niels Birbaumer Settle Legal Dispute

Joint Committee gives approval / Sanctions imposed on researcher remain largely intact

The legal dispute between the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and Tübingen-based brain researcher Professor Dr. Niels Birbaumer has ended. At its meeting on 25 March 2022, the Joint Committee of Germany’s largest research funding organisation and central institution for academic self-governance approved a draft settlement which has now become effective. With this an earlier decision by the DFG’s Joint Committee which involved sanctions being imposed on Birbaumer for scientific misconduct remains largely intact

On 19 September 2019, following an investigation of two DFG-funded publications by Birbaumer and other authors concerning communication with completely locked-in (CLIS) patients in the journal PLOS Biology, the Joint Committee found evidence of scientific misconduct in several cases and decided to impose sanctions on the researcher in accordance with the DFG’s Rules of Procedure for dealing with allegations of scientific misconduct. In doing so, it was following a suggestion by the DFG Committee of Inquiry on Allegations of Scientific Misconduct. This procedure explicitly did not involve an assessment of the validity of the theses regarding communication with CLIS patients: in fact the investigation and findings concerned the methodological handling of data.

As a result, Birbaumer was barred from submitting funding proposals and from being involved in any DFG review activities for a period of five years. In addition, the DFG reserved the right to reclaim part of the funding awarded to Birbaumer for the project in question. Finally, the researcher was asked to withdraw publications relating to the misconduct, which was ultimately taken care of by the publishing company itself. In 2020, Birbaumer took legal action against this decision taken by the Joint Committee. After a hearing before the Regional Court of Bonn, a draft settlement was finally arrived at between the DFG and Birbaumer, which was subsequently the subject of deliberations by the Joint Committee.

These deliberations took place at the same time a new publication by Birbaumer appeared reporting successful treatment in connection with communication by a CLIS patient. The preliminary research work on which this latter publication is based was also funded in part by the DFG, though this was not the same project as the one which gave rise to the publications investigated in 2019 and which caused the sanctions to be imposed.

The study by Birbaumer recently published in nature communications rapidly became the subject of extensive coverage and commentary in both academic circles and public media, with the new project in some cases being linked directly to the sanctions imposed on Birbaumer and characterised as a “rehabilitation”. This was also the view propagated by Birbaumer himself, who was quoted on the biomedical online portal statnews as saying: “We won the case, and that means that the organisation who was responsible for this judgement has to lift the retraction.” In response, the DFG clarified that this statement does not correspond to the facts in several respects: at that time, a settlement was being sought and the legal dispute with Birbaumer was ongoing until the Regional Court of Bonn made a ruling on the conclusion and details of the settlement.

In its deliberations, the Joint Committee also expressed its astonishment at these latter developments. At the same time, it expressed clear criticism of the rumoured statements on the state of the proceedings and any alleged rehabilitation of Birbaumer. Nevertheless, the Joint Committee approved the previously agreed litigation settlement. It includes a public notice, which is worded as follows:

DFG and Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Birbaumer settle legal dispute:

At its meeting on 19 September 2019, the DFG Joint Committee decided in connection with two publications to impose sanctions on Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Birbaumer and another project leader due to scientific misconduct. Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Birbaumer brought an action against this before the Regional Court of Bonn. A settlement has now been arrived at to end these legal proceedings.
The DFG and Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Birbaumer have agreed that the DFG’s specific procedure due to scientific misconduct against Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Birbaumer was conducted properly and in accordance with the DFG’s procedural rules for dealing with scientific misconduct.
In order to avoid a protracted legal dispute, the parties have agreed on an amicable settlement. Under this settlement, the sanctions imposed by the DFG Joint Committee against Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Birbaumer will end on 1 January 2023.
As a result of the settlement being reached, the court has not conducted a final review of the facts or made a final determination regarding the allegations of scientific misconduct in dispute and the assessment of this matter by the DFG Joint Committee. In this regard, both parties maintain their respective opinions. This concludes the dispute.”

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