The Tim Hunt Debacle

After a whole day off yesterday to recover from an exceptionally busy week I’m back in the office on a Sunday to sort out a few things before leaving tomorrow on a short trip to the Midlands, of which more, perhaps, anon.

In a way I’m quite glad I have been so busy over the last few days, with Exam Boards and the like. Had I had time I might have been tempted to write a post at some point about the Tim Hunt affair which broke on Tuesday. As it turns out, everything moved so quickly that anything I wrote would have been overtaken by events. In any case I didn’t feel that I had much to add to the excellent response written by the Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, Prof. Claudia Eberlein, in the Huffington Post on Thursday.  However, now I have a little bit of time I thought I would add a few comments.

I hope it goes without saying that I thought Tim Hunt’s comments about female scientists, made in public at an event in South Korea, were outrageous and indefensible.  My heart sank when I found out what he’d said. I might have believed his story that they were intended to be humorous had it not been for an awful non-apology on Radio 4, which effectively made that line of defence untenable. Nobel Prize winning biochemist he may be, but Tim Hunt clearly has a lot to learn about how to interact with people. When we find ourselves in a hole, most of us have the sense to stop digging.

I know my opinion here differs from that of some of my friends and colleagues, but I also think University College London did the right thing in asking him to resign. I’ve heard it argued that it over the top for him to lose his job over his remarks. But that’s not what happened. In fact, Tim Hunt is in his seventies and has been effectively retired for many years; his position at UCL was honorary (i.e. unpaid). I don’t think the severance of his relationship with UCL can be construed as an excessive punishment. In today’s Observer there’s a piece in which Tim Hunt claims he has been “hung out to dry” . I have to admit that I find his attempt to portray himself as victim to be as nauseating as his earlier apology.  I think UCL were fully justified in severing their relationship with Tim Hunt. This is not an issue of freedom of speech. Tim Hunt had every right to express his opinions. Those opinions are, however, completely incompatible with the values of the institution with which he was associated and his statement of them harmful to the reputation if UCL. He simply had to go.

On the other hand, there’s a lot about this story that troubles me greatly. Although some of the social media reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments was incisively humorous, some was unpleasant and some downright nasty. Worse, the Twitterstorm that raged last week also unleashed the gutter press, chiefly the Daily Mail, whose hacks tried to drag Prof. Mary Collins (Hunt’s wife) into the story. That was unpleasant, even by the standards of the Daily Mail. Mary Collins’ private life has nothing to do with her husband’s failings.

Anyway, I hope that a line will now be drawn under this episode. Tim Hunt should now be left alone to enjoy his retirement. As someone once said of someone else “I’ve nothing against his family, but I’m glad he will be spending more time with them”.

Nobody should be deluded that the departure of one high-profile academic will solve anything.  Tim Hunt was one senior academic stupid enough make offensive comments in public. There are countless others in positions of power and influence who hold very similar opinions but only express them behind closed doors, or under the cover of anonymity. Indeed, I know a number of senior academics who put on a public show of being in favour of equality and diversity but in private have acted deliberately to undermine the careers of, usually junior, female scientists. The culprits aren’t always men, either..

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure I should point that I have never met Tim Hunt so do not know what his views really are. Neither do I have any connection with University College London.

29 Responses to “The Tim Hunt Debacle”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I imagine Sir Tim Hunt made his initial comments with the intention of being funny, in a crass, Jeremy Clarkson manner. We can debate whether that alone would be sufficient justification for University College London to end Sir Tim’s unpaid, honorary, post there – I would argue that the embarrassment caused to UCL justifies in full the curtailment.

    However, there is another aspect of this that concerns me more. The academic careers system is dysfunctional and over-competitive. The odds against any person who begins a first postdoctoral position going on to a long-term academic career are small, and researchers on fixed-term contracts are usually dependent on getting support from established academics to get the opportunities to prove themselves and to apply for fellowships. Bias, conscious or unconscious, can break careers, and that is acutely true for women. That Sir Tim appeared not to understand this is shocking.

    Sir Tim, as a former Nobel Prize winner, will very likely find that an offer of an honorary visiting position comes his way again in the near future, giving him a chance to carry on with research in his retirement, if only from a university without the prestige of UCL. He should be aware of the women scientists whose careers were ended because of a lack of support born of thoughtless sexism. Perhaps a few of those women might have won Nobel Prizes had they been able to continue in science.

  2. Sir Tim Hunt “was always immensely supportive of the ERC’s work around gender equality” (Dame Athene Donald). Both his wife and ex-wife, both feminists, strongly deny that he’s a misogynist. In his comments, he made an experience-based observation that feelings between men and women can get in the way of work in the lab, and that women are more likely to cry when criticised (which is broadly speaking true, is it not?)

    Please strike a blow in the crusade against social media bullying and ignorance gone viral, sign the petition to help reinstate Sir Tim Hunt: –

    • telescoper Says:

      I won’t sign it. Others may choose to, of course.

    • “feelings between men and women can get in the way of work in the lab”.

      Maybe feelings could help, maybe they could hinder, but why is it “the trouble with girls” and not “the trouble with boys”? And what should be done about homosexuals? Surely the same argument would apply to them?

      • Sir Tim actually said “my trouble with girls” rather than “the trouble with girls”; he was speaking from personal experience, which he later clarified.

        I don’t personally agree with Sir Tim’s views advocating single sex labs. However, the evidence strongly suggests that his views stemmed from pragmatic rather than sexist motives. In addition, I defend his right to freedom of speech.

      • telescoper Says:

        I defend his right to free speech too, as I do the for those who spoke out against him, and the right of UCL to decide his views were incompatible with those of the institution.

      • telescoper – the UCL council wasn’t even informed of the decision to force Sir Tim’s resignation. The London Evening Standard reports the full council wasn’t even informed and that its members are furious. “The council was not consulted,” says their source. “There will be many council members and academics at UCL unhappy with this reaction to a silly joke by an elderly professor”. Source: London Evening Standard, 15/06/2015

      • telescoper Says:

        It’s not obvious to me why the Council should be informed anyway. If someone were sacked for gross misconduct the Council wouldn’t normally be consulted, so why should it be for an honorary position?

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        So what? Sir Tim’s position was an unpaid, honorary, visiting one for a retired scientist. The UCL statement makes it clear that Sir Tim resigned on his own initiative, presumably so as not to cause UCL any further embarrassment. Why does it matter now?

      • 1) There was no allegation of gross misconduct, please read my petition article (link posted above) for more information

        2) “Sir Tim did plenty of teaching and work promoting science. His links to UCL and the ERC were hugely important to this. Now he’s considered “toxic” (Tim’s own word) by universities in general and believes his career is over. Source: The Independent, Article by Doug Bolton, 14/06/2015

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        As I understand things, Sir Tim’s career ended when he retired five years ago at the age of 67 years, and he will now be the recipient of a generous pension. Some other university in Southeast England will probably offer him a visiting fellowship soon so that he can pop in once a week to keep up with the literature and publish the occasional article.

        I’m more concerned about the women scientists whose careers ended when they were aged in their 30s or 40s because of sexism, without any pensions, without any alternative careers, and without any means of financial support.

      • Peter O Says:

        I think it is very important that we teach everyone that they are welcome in the sciences and will not be discriminated against.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, absolutely.

        But a central problem is that the number of long-term posts in academic science is tiny compared with number of people who are awarded PhDs. There will therefore be a great selectivity in determining which individuals remain in academic science in the long term. This, in combination with the strong hierarchies in universities and in research council practice, makes support and patronage from established academics critical in determining which people can pursue long-term careers in academic science. This, in turn, greatly enhances the potential for favouritism, random luck and discrimination.

        The academic career system is therefore one that is prone to unfair discrimination, including sexism. There must be a fundamental reform in academic research careers, led by the research councils to lessen the potential for unjust discrimination.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Sir Tim would need access to journal articles (online or printed), which is best facilitated through an institution’s library subscriptions. An academic address would be helpful in being treated seriously when submitting journals, although this probably would not arise for past Nobel Prize winners. However, collaborators could provide access to the literature and handle the process of submitting papers, provided that the collaborators are prepared to take the lead in this.

      • Bryn – if you’d read Sir Tim’s Observer interview (13th June), you’d have seen there was plenty more he wanted to achieve that he feels he no longer can, due to the knee-jerk reactions of UCL, the ERC and the Royal Society. Much of this work entailed promoting science, and science teaching, to men and women in a variety of countries. As a Nobel laureate and distinguished professor, he was in a unique position to achieve this with flying colours. To shut him out for telling a mildly cheeky joke is patently absurd. Thankfully though, many feminists, former colleagues and students, amongst others, have recently rallied to Sir Tim’s aid, and UCL have said they will consider their position.

      • telescoper Says:

        ” there was plenty more he wanted to achieve that he feels he no longer can”

        I doubt this. I don’t think he can alienate many more than he already has.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        There were probably hundreds of women scientists who could have contributed significantly to science but whose careers ended early because of sexism – primarily due to an unconscious bias among academics who failed to support them in an extremely overcompetitive career system.

        We’ll see whether some other university or institute in the London area comes along to offer Sir Tim a visiting fellowship in the near future. I’d be surprised if none did, at least several weeks from now, after the current media storm has died down.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I wrote the London area because I assumed that would be a convenient travel area for Sir Tim, who lives north of London I understand. My view (and personal experience) is that visiting positions need to be fairly close to a person’s residence to provide useful access to university facilities for that person to carry on with research (at least without strong support from collaborators). It is not practical to expect somebody not in receipt of a full salary to a large distance to access a university department.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        It would be unacceptable for Sir Tim to have to move to access university facilities, and I am confident an offer of access to a local university or institute will be made soon, if indeed he does not already have informal access.

        There are multiple acute failures of the academic research careers system. I’m not sure I’d agree that financial independence is necessary, but it certainly can help. There are many people who succeed in academia without wealth – they succeed because of a combination of reasons including luck, patronage, hard work, aptitude, intelligence and good management in their departments. The problem is that patronage, luck and financial independence are too important.

      • telescoper Says:

        Of course if we had Open Access publishing, nobody would need to have an academic job to access journals.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, absolutely.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I’ve been trying to think of astronomers I know who have started families before getting a permanent contract, and there aren’t that many. Most seem to wait until they get a permanent job, either in academia or by leaving academia.

        This is something that particularly affects women because of the fall in fertility as they age. This came up, for example, in the House of Commons Select Committee report into Women in Scientific Careers a couple of years ago.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, the failings in the academic research career system affects men severely, as well as women, but I believe women do somewhat worse overall.

        A central problem is that prospective PhD students, and prospective undergraduate students too, should have full and accurate information about the state of the career system before committing themselves. The problem is that if they did, the supply of young, highly-talented men and women that university science depends on would dry up, and academic science might collapse.

  3. […] my erstwhile colleague, Peter Coles, has pointed out in a typically clear-headed and eloquent piece, what Hunt said was indefensible. In a similarly insightful blog post, Michael Eisen convincingly […]

  4. […] years, particularly on the subjects of Bayesian statistics and jazz. And with regard to certain  key aspects of diversity and equality — I should note before I go any further that I am a member of our School’s Diversity […]

  5. Bertram Buchwald Says:

    Do you still feel this way, now that we know Connie St. Louis to be an inveterate liar and have hard evidence that she misrepresented the event in question? Are you still sure of your pronouncement, now that others in attendance have explained that Sir Tim Hunt’s comments were intended ironically, to mock the idea that female scientists act like empty-headed girls? “Now, seriously,” he said afterward. In other words: “I did not literally mean that thing I just said, so please do not repeat it out of context on Twitter. Otherwise self-righteous theoretical cosmologists will attack me while continuing to falsely believe they have rational, scientific minds.”

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I do. He was right to resign and UCL was right to accept his resignation.

    • “Let me tell you about my problems with Jews……… Now seriously”
      “Let me tell you about my problems with Blacks……. Now seriously.”

  6. […] this day) about a man “losing his livelihood” — was retired at the time he made his misjudged comments at a science journalism conference in Korea back in 2015. Hunt was, in fact, an honorary professor at UCL (and, by definition, was therefore not […]

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