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call off the hunt

Am I the only one who feels sorry for Tim Hunt? Judging from my inbox, I’m not.

I can’t help myself. I just feel uneasy when people are vilified, sacked or have their reputations trashed, in part because of a media storm. I want my villains to be really nasty and to deserve their fate. I have always felt the same. I hated the so called “Alastair Campbell rule” where MPs caught up in scandals had to be sacrificed if the media storm was still raging after ten days, even if they were totally innocent.

And nor is the first time we have seen science being as brutal as politics. I was at the British Science Association festival a few years ago when bored science journalists decided to make mischief. When the director of education at the Royal Society, Michael Reiss confirmed to a journalist that he would answer a question about creationism raised by a pupil in a science class, the journalists smelt blood. The next move was to put in a call to Richard Dawkins and other high profile atheists to ask the rhetorical question as to whether this might be a resigning matter…affirmative. Within days he was gone. I called ten people on the day of his resignation desperately hoping to hear that he was a horrible person who deserved his fate. Without exception, all told me he was the nicest man in the Royal Society and a great director for the Royal Society. He was sacked not because of what he said, not because of what he thinks, but because the media storm wouldn’t die down without this scalp.

The row over Tim Hunt feels similar. Of course what he said was ill-judged, not one bit funny and actually a bit bonkers. But within hours of the story breaking, people were queuing up to make Tim Hunt the poster boy for sexism in science. Within forty eight hours he was effectively sacked from an honorary position at UCL, the board of the European Research Council (ERC) and a Royal Society prize-giving committee.

The SMC issued comments from a long list of scientists condemning Hunt’s remarks, and set up back to back interviews with angry female scientists in despair at the crass and damaging comments. But I had questions, mainly revolving around whether or not Tim Hunt is a chauvinist. Does he actually discriminate against his female colleagues? Does he seriously propose segregated labs and has he ever tried to implement this? Does he refuse to employ young women in his lab because they might cry when he appraises their work? And critically, will removing Tim Hunt from his positions at UCL, the Royal Society and the ERC also remove a barrier to the progress of women in science and advance that cause. I asked around but none of those giving interviews or tweeting seemed be able to answer me. Worryingly for me, the question of whether this scientist deserved this global vilification seemed irrelevant.

I then called scientists who know him and something interesting happened. They said they had not witnessed any gender bias in him. Some specified the exact opposite. That Tim is a fantastic supporter of young scientists, including women. The organiser of a national competition for young scientists told me that he had never been anything but fantastic, especially with the young women, and is really dedicated and generous with his time. Another eminent woman wrote: “among scientists who know him, Tim Hunt is regarded as a good man and an excellent scientist. He is renowned for his willingness to engage, especially with students, and has done a great deal to promote the careers of young people, including women.”

I then decided to call Tim himself.  I asked him why he called himself a chauvinist and if he believes he is one. He insisted again that it was intended to be a silly joke and that he prides himself on treating everyone he works with respect and kindness, and believes he has achieved that over his career.

So does it actually matter whether Tim Hunt is a real sexist or just made sexist remarks? Dorothy Bishop, who issued one of the most humane and intelligent comments about the affair, thinks it doesn’t: “I feel that personal liking for the man should not blind us to the damage he has done, especially to the Royal Society’s push for greater diversity. In one short speech he has set back the cause of women in science.”

Fair point. At a time where women are still underrepresented in areas of science and ridiculously hard to find at the top, news of crusty old dinosaurs reinforcing tired old stereotypes is enough to make anyone despair, let alone those women and institutions who have been fighting to put this image of science behind us. But there is huge difference between slamming his comments as out of date, and calling for his head on a plate. Surely we cannot celebrate the fact that an excellent scientist known for doing much to promote scientific careers for young men and women will no longer occupy three important positions? Has this advanced the cause of women in science? I fear not. The very real issues which women in science face at each stage of their careers are not being addressed by tokenistic gestures and a rush to judge.

It is interesting that the global campaign of vilification for Tim Hunt was launched from a journalism conference. I ran the programme committee for the same conference when it was held in London in 2009 and remember being inspired by journalists expressing the values of great truth-telling, investigative, meaningful journalism. The media love a row about sexism in science, and when it’s a colourful Nobel Prize winner it’s even more fun. But I don’t think the journalists who reported this story will be nominating it for any awards.

In fact I am finding it hard to see any actual journalism being done on this story at all. Many commentators made the point that if they were a female scientist trying to get a job in his lab or being judged for a prize or research grant, they would be concerned about their chances. But that is something that has not been investigated and verified; no-one seems to have asked those basic questions to women in Tim’s labs. Given that the ERC and Royal Society have now acceded to calls for his removal from scientific committees, might it be reasonable to investigate whether he did use his role on those committees to discriminate against women. Nobody has yet secured an interview with Tim’s highly regarded scientist wife, so we are none the wiser as to whether she wants to kill him or defend him. Contradictory claims about the context of the remarks circulated amongst those at the conference with some accepting that it was intended to be a joke and others saying it was deadly serious. Both cannot be true. Several journalists have reported Tim as delivering a speech which implies that his remarks were pre planned, while Tim insists he was asked to make some remarks after the speeches were concluded which were off the cuff and not prepared.

I have no idea why Tim Hunt was at a science journalism conference. He is as far as I know not very interested in science journalism, and unlike his fellow Nobel Prize winner Paul Nurse not in the slightest media savvy. I do know from my inbox that this media storm has already put other scientists off speaking to journalists. My greatest fear, voiced in the blog I wrote about Matt Taylor is that we turn scientists into politicians, where the concern of a career cut short by one careless comment means they are media-trained to within an inch of their life and always on message. Matt Taylor and Tim Hunt are cut from the same cloth: slightly eccentric, the opposite to worldly wise, but also incredibly brilliant and inspiring scientists. I am not saying it’s ok to be sexist if you are a great scientist. I am saying that the media and the scientific community lose a lot if we only get the ones who are on message. Of course people at that conference were right to challenge Tim’s remarks, but I also wish he could have got a bit more of the kind of fair, measured, truth telling reporting being espoused by those same journalists.

Many of the female scientists condemning Tim Hunt have joined the SMC database in the past year after an intensive media training programme by the Academy of Medical Sciences of their female fellows. The Royal Society has done huge amounts recently to remove the barriers remaining. The ivory tower of science might still feel closed to some women. But adorning its gates with Tim Hunt’s head does nothing for equality.


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

11 Responses to call off the hunt

  1. amy says:

    I think the point’s gone whooshing over your head, even though you did manage to quote Dorothy Bishop on the salient point.

    Science doesn’t “feel closed” to women — it often *is closed*. Particularly when they do that thing most women in the world eventually do, which is to have children. Or it’s open so long as they’re willing to accept sexual harassment, as Alice Huang recently suggested they should do.

    Science, incidentally, isn’t the only sexist jobs field around. And there’s this thing women like to do, which is eat and stay housed and be able to support their families and achieve some measure of satisfaction in their work. When one old ass starts talking about how women don’t belong at work, it encourages the rest. We don’t need that. I don’t need that, my kid doesn’t need that.

    You’re feeling sorry for Tim, I think, because you see him as a stand-in for yourself, and worry about how you might get your own head served to you by saying something a bit silly. The problem is that what Tim said was more than “a bit silly”; it was destructive to people who already struggle to stay in science, and damaging to science itself. (Yes, it matters who’s doing the science.) So if you’re worried about this, then — you know, maybe become more aware of and sensitive to the lives of the people around you, think about what sort of problems you’re shrugging off because they don’t affect you directly. Then you won’t accidentally knock people downstairs and have to say oh sorry, you hadn’t meant to, and then get upset when that doesn’t seem to get you “‘s all right mate” in return.

    I can’t say I feel sorry for him at all. I’m sure he’s surprised at the extent of the public drubbing and the way his friends have distanced themselves. Maybe he’ll consider with some sincerity why they have done. But I suspect he’s actually far better-off than I am, and all he’s lost (deservedly) is some respect and a couple of honorary posts.

    • Michael Stewart says:

      “But I suspect he’s actually far better-off than I am, and all he’s lost (deservedly) is some respect and a couple of honorary posts.” Students of early-mid European history will be touched by this note and remember how the horrors of human society are rarely generated by monsters.

  2. I was pretty shaken when I heard what Tim Hunt had said, all the more because I have recently become a member of the Royal Society’s diversity committee. When he talked about the incident on the Today programme on 10 June, it certainly didn’t sound like a joke to me.

    Everyone appreciates Hunt’s work, but his views about women are from the dark ages. It seemed to me, and to Dorothy Bishop, and to many others, that Hunt should not play any part in selection or policy matters. The Royal Society moved with admirable speed to do that.

    The views that were expressed are so totally incompatible with UCL’s values, and it was right that UCL too acted quickly. His job at UCL was an honorary one: he is retired and he was not deprived of his lab and his living, as some people suggested.

    The episode is sad and disappointing, but the right things were done quickly. Now Hunt can be left in peace to enjoy his retirement.

    • SB says:

      I absolutely agree with everything you said, especially the part about UCL. I’ve pointed out to a number of people that his was an honorary position and they all, without exception, had not understood that point before then.

      I have met Hunt on a few occasions, although not for a few years now, and I had noticed, even several years ago, that he seemed to be spending all his time (even while he still had a lab) giving talks, many of which were unrelated to his work on the cell cycle.

      The last talk I saw him at, about 5 years ago, I remember raising an eyebrow at some of his comments about mental illness. However, it was an age when meetings weren’t tweeted and he was safe enough. However, I suspect that rather than a moment of madness his comments were far more par for the course and he finally found the wrong audience for them.

  3. Jeff Richards says:

    Holy mother of God! (hope that’s not too sexist…) A balanced view of what went on, thank you so much. What a shame the media has had its way again. I have to say, sadly, that he’s better off out of an organisation that finds a person guilty before there’s even a hearing.

  4. Ali Radicali says:

    You know what sets back women in science?
    This perpetual meme of “science is hostile to women, science is sexist.”

    Not only is it simply not true (2:1 hiring preference for women in US STEM fields…), it also reinforces the notion are delicate flowers that can be emotionally crippled by the mere presence of sexism, even in homeopathic concentrations.

    How’s that for reinforcing archaic gender stereotypes?

    • SB says:

      Could you post a source for your 2:1 hiring preference quote – I would be really interested to see it.

      My own experience in a US university was completely the opposite of that. The women were all paid less than the men (starting offers were typically $5,000p.a. less) – my own pay was $7,000 less than my nearest male counterpart who had three years less experience than me. This however is anecdotal data, albeit one I saw repeated over and over at US institutions.

      However, I have never seen a study that shows preferential hiring of women, only studies that show a far higher rate of loss of women from STEM fields and confirmation bias resulting in women having to work harder and produce better quality work than their male counterparts just to be considered equal.

  5. Rafaelle Roy says:

    Yes, that was a silly thing to say. I defend women, everywhere, every time. But this? Huge overreaction. That of the ‘victims’ -the female scientists- was humorous, appropriate. But – to be forced out of his work? And we’re talking Academy here? They should know, more than anybody, that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. And they know, more than anybody, that this mind is a brilliant one. So, shame on THEM for throwing it away like that. THAT is what is unacceptable What a terrible waste, for not much of a reason.

  6. Leonid Schneider says:

    Dear Fiona,
    not sure about bad journalism you refer to, but let’s use scientific approach: ask Hunt’s female employees for opinion, not his wife or heads of ERC, EMBO, Sainsbury Lab and other senior peers. Let us simply collect data evidence from the most appropriate source: those who Hunt was actually talking about.
    Feel free to delete this comment, for bad journalism.
    Leonid Schneider,
    Science journalist, former scientist

  7. Gilbert Reid says:

    All revolutions require, it seems, a guillotine. [the funny face goes here]

  8. Steersman says:

    Generally a reasonable post and argument – certainly agree there’s no benefit to having Tim Hunt’s head “adorning the gates to the ivory tower of science”. Though I’m rather disappointed by the fact that the mob continues to howl for that some 5 months after your post – I guess the taste of blood, Hunt’s loss of his honourary positions, was insufficient to satiate the beast.

    However, one thing is of particular concern as it seems that many are unclear on the concept of “sexism” (1) in the first place, and, in the second, are using that “misperception” to justify a rather egregious witch hunt. More particularly, consider several of the rather common definitions:

    “sex•ism (sĕk′sĭz′əm)
    1. Discrimination based on gender, especially discrimination against women.
    2. The belief that one gender is superior to the other, especially that men are superior to women.”

    Pray tell, how did Hunt’s joke actually “discriminate against women”? In what way did it underwrite or manifest the claim that “all men are superior to all women”? Consider specifically what has been reported (2) to have been the substance if not the letter of his joke:

    “It’s strange that a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls.

    Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt, an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science despite the obstacles and despite monsters like me!”

    Now, one might reasonably fault him for being a little careless in not differentiating between all women and some women. But it sure seems remarkably uncharitable, at best, to see that first part as anything other than a lead-in, a rather self-deprecating jest based on a mere stereotype – which can be remarkably accurate (3) for some segments of a population – rather than any assertion that the stereotype was applicable to all women.

    1) “_”;
    2) “_”;
    3) “_”;

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