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expert reaction to comments made by Prof. Tim Hunt FRS on female scientists

Professor Tim Hunt, winner of the Nobel prize in 2001, has faced criticism for comments made in South Korea about female scientists and their place in the lab.


Professor Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), said:

“I was extremely disappointed to hear that Professor Tim Hunt had made these remarks. They were damaging on many levels.

“First in order to tackle the greatest challenges we face in science we need diversity of approach – as Einstein said ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’. Going back to a 1950s segregated public school way of doing science is not going to tap into the skills and intelligence of 50% of the talent pool and realize the benefits of new ways of working.

“Secondly it revealed a complete lack of insight into the importance of leadership and role models – as a senior scientist with his credentials he should be showing leadership and role modelling behavior for the next generation of women and men. I have seen both man and women cry and men and women bully  – the issue is about professionalism in the work place and setting expectations of behavior irrespective of gender.

“Thirdly he then tried to pass it off as being acceptable as a joke although according to one of the audience his discourse on the place of women went on for over 5 minutes which seems rather long for a joke. But substitute sexuality or race for gender in his remarks and they would not be tolerated!

“We have a long way to go in tackling unconscious bias in science especially at senior levels but these remark shows that even conscious bias still exists.”


Professor Kathy Pritchard-Jones, Programme Director for the Integrated Cancer Programme at UCLPartners and Chief Medical Officer for London Cancer, said:

“Unfortunately, we are all only too familiar with the sexual stereotypes of how people are viewed in either leadership positions or at times of stress. To hear these preconceived judgements about women in science coming from one of the UK’s Nobel laureates in science is a great disappointment. Scientists should be judged on their ideas and the quality of the experiments they do to prove them, not on whether they express their human emotions.

“Science needs many personalities and their creative ideas to make progress for society and humankind. Why dismiss half of our creative workforce without giving them an equal chance to prove themselves? Believing in a hypothesis without testing it is the anathema of good science. Tim Hunt clearly needs new role models to challenge his self-confessed chauvinism and improve his after-dinner speaking. Perhaps Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, should have a word in his ear. He clearly doesn’t know about the government’s requirements for future biomedical research funding to only go to those institutions that embrace the Athena Swan Charter (to support women to reach their full potential in science) – otherwise his protégées influenced by his mentoring style may find themselves short of grant income in the future.”


Prof. Fran Platt, Professor of Biochemistry and Pharmacology, University of Oxford, said:

“The challenges faced by women in science still remain as major obstacles to career progression and personal development. In the modern age we tend to experience non-concious gender bias, so it is particularly disappointing to hear comments that seem to stem from another era. The only positive side to this whole debacle is it puts this key topic back on the agenda and is being debated in the mainstream media for probably the first time.

“It can only be hoped that it will highlight to the general public how important and challenging it is for female scientists to be treated as equals in what remains a male-dominated profession, particularly at the senior end of the spectrum.”


Dr Katherine Sleeman, Clinical Lecturer in Palliative Medicine at King’s College London, said:

“Tim Hunt’s comments about women in science are shocking and regrettable, but it is good that he made them. His comments demonstrate conclusively that sexism in science is not yesterday’s problem. Improving the diversity on interview and grant panels, and the visibility of women in top scientific positions, is the easy part of the solution.

“Harder is creating working environments where sly, covert sexism, and amorous advances from powerful men, are not part of the daily battle for young women scientists.”


Dr Mark Downs, Chief Executive, Society of Biology said:

“Women are under-represented in science, especially in senior roles. We need to do even more to ensure this talent is not lost. A backward looking approach of segregation is certainly not the answer. Sir Tim’s comments are misplaced and unhelpful.”


Mr Imran Khan, Chief Executive, British Science Association (BSA), said:

“Sadly, dealing with sexism and other forms of discrimination are a daily reality for many people, and I imagine it’s hard to find Sir Tim’s comments funny if you’ve been held back by systemic bias for years – whether those remarks were intended as a joke or not.

“Sir Tim’s given a lot of time to promoting science amongst young people, including helping crown many winners – male and female – of our Young Scientist of the Year* competition. It’s very frustrating to see so much careful effort put in by him and countless others being undone by careless statements like these.”



Professor Anne Glover, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, said:

“Tim Hunt seems to have been speaking about his personal problems in relating to women. What he describes is not my experience and I have never had a student (male or female, straight or gay) cry when their research was criticised. Maybe it has something to do with the way you criticise. I hope his attitudes regarding women are largely confined to a former generation.”


Prof. Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology, University of Oxford, said:

“It does seem that Hunt’s comments were in a very public forum with many science journalists present and there has been corroboration from people I’d take seriously. It seems he did say these things. I gather he also pretty well repeated them on Radio 4 this morning.

“It is also clear that many people like Tim Hunt. I don’t know him, but those who do tell me he is not the kind of puffed up self-important alpha male that one often finds in the corridors of scientific power. He is variously described as modest, kind and plain-speaking.

“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. Many people already suspicious that the Royal Society is sexist will see this as confirmation that it is full of important men who think this way, with Hunt just as the tip of the iceberg – so important that he feels he can say what he really thinks without consequence. This is very unfair on the Royal Society, of course, who are not responsible for what any of their fellows say, and who have already published a comment distancing themselves from his views. Nevertheless, they are damaged by this.

“I think we do need to consider what would be a proportionate response. Twitterstorms can be dreadful: rather like lynch mobs. Hunt has not murdered anyone and we must respect his freedom of speech. However, I don’t think we should let this go by just as someone being indiscreet, blunt, jokey, or whatever. The comments get at the heart of bias against women in science: the notion that we can’t be serious contenders because we are too emotional, and, even worse, we distract the men from their science by our sexual allure.

“My view is that the RS (and indeed any organisation that Hunt is involved in) should simply debar him from any committee that makes decisions about fellowships, appointments, promotions, policy etc. I have no doubt that, nice guy as everyone confirms he is, he does his best not to be overtly prejudiced, but he clearly has a view of women that just makes him inappropriate in these roles. If this were done, and a public statement issued to that effect by the RS, this would demonstrate their seriousness about diversity. This would be bad for Hunt, but he’s in a very bad position anyhow, and I think a move like this would allow everyone to move on and let the story die down.”


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