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.