Stop defending Tim Hunt

The likes of Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox should focus on taking up the real issue of sexism in science. It is absurd to say that scientists can do and say what they like in the name of academic freedom

TIm Hunt
Tim Hunt made culturally insensitive and sexist remarks but a growing number of people including scientists and politicians, mainly men, are defending him. Photograph: CSABA SEGESVARI/AFP/Getty Images

As the Tim Hunt storm continues unabated. I find myself pondering the decision to break the story from the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea about Sir Tim Hunt’s remarks were, as I’ve said, culturally insensitive and sexist.

You can find an accurate record of his comments here. After an empty apology and then declaring that “he stood by his comments”, Hunt has taken the spotlight and somewhat self-indulgently allowed it to remain fully focused on him.

Sociologist, Andre Lorde defines sexism as “the belief in the inherent superiority of one sex and thereby the right to dominance.” The Tim Hunt story has followed what is usually described as a typical “pattern of oppression.” First there is a hollow apology. Then there is claim about being misunderstood. Next there is an outcry from the establishment.

So its no surprise that there have been a growing numbers of people, mainly men, who have come forward to support Hunt. First, a handmaidenesque interview in the Observer at Hunt’s lovely house in rural Hertfordshire. The interview is full of lovely anecdotes of Hunt doing the grocery shopping and cooking (a modern reconstructed man?). It ends with what can only be describes as a ‘whining’ platform. Both Hunt and his wife Mary Collins complain that they have been ‘hung out to dry’ by the various scientific establishments.

Deborah Blum an American colleague (who also witnessed the episode) has published a piece on Hunt. She met with Hunt at the conference in Korea after his comments at the lunch. She “made a point of asking him to clarify the comments the following day and he stood by them”. She made a Storify of the tweets.

I do have sympathy for Hunt, like almost everyone else I find the “internet tidal wave effect” horrifying. But because I thought it might happen and there might be a possibility that too much attention was turned on Hunt. I have read Jon Ronson’s book. I took considerable steps, which I have outlined to ensure that the story moved onto the bigger picture. I asked the Royal Society, who is in charge of these matters in the UK funded by the taxpayer; to comment on its own policies for eradicating sexism in science. The Royal Society has been extremely quiet since then apart from a few mutterings from their chair of The Royal Society’s diversity committee Uta Firth about ‘slow science’ on the radio, which frankly sounds like an excuse for inaction and delay for the radical change that is inevitable and urgent.

Hunt had a moment when there was a lot of attention on him to use it for good. He could have apologised properly. Talked at the time about the brilliant work carried out by women scientists. This was an opportunity to turn this sorry mess into a positive advantage for everyone; including himself. However he has chosen to whine about how mean people are and this does not accomplish anything. UCL stand by the fact that Tim Hunt offered his resignation, he was not forced to resign.

In Korea during Hunt’s outburst, the female Korean scientists and engineers were stunned and confused. However, they have now spoken. They were deeply offended and didn’t get Hunt’s so-called ‘jokes’. Nobody was laughing. Hunt now claims, he then added the words, “now seriously” before going on to praise the role of women in science and in Korean society. “The words ‘now seriously’ make it very clear that I was making a joke, albeit a very bad one, but they were not mentioned in the first reports and I was deluged with hate mail,” Hunt said. He did not say this nor did he praise the role of women in science and in Korean society. I wish he had said, things would have been so much better.

The trickle of privileged men defending Hunt, has grown into a river; beginning with Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Physicist Brian Cox swiftly follows him on lunchtime national radio. Cox endorses him and says Hunt shouldn’t have to resign.

Next eight Nobel laureates plus the ubiquitous Richard Dawkins have come out in support of Hunt. There are over 2,000 signatures on an online petition to reinstate him back to his honorary post at UCL. Contrast this with only 200+ signatures on a petition that I started to call on the Royal Society to elect its first female president. The Nobel eight’s idiotic attempt to orchestrate and equate the upset caused by Hunt’s ill advised and sexist comments with some kind of ‘academic chilling’.

This is absurd idea and deserves to be “outed” for what it is, a deeply cynical attempt to say that scientists can do and say what they like. In the name of academic freedom? Is science so special that any old sexist (or even for that matter racist) words that they utter is allowed? The answer is and must be a resounding no.

As David Colquhoun points out in an Hunt interview in the Lab Times last year, he was asked the following question.

“In your opinion, why are women still under-represented in senior positions in academia and funding bodies?”

Hunt replied: “I’m not sure there is really a problem, actually. People just look at the statistics. I dare, myself, think there is any discrimination, either for or against men or women. I think people are really good at selecting good scientists but I must admit the inequalities in the outcomes, especially at the higher end, are quite staggering. And I have no idea what the reasons are. One should start asking why women being under-represented in senior positions is such a big problem. Is this actually a bad thing? It is not immediately obvious for me ... is this bad for women? Or bad for science? Or bad for society? I don’t know, it clearly upsets people a lot.”

There have been many excuses volunteered for Hunt’s behaviour. Some have said he’s old. The science PR organisation the UK Science Media Centre describes him as ‘a crusty old dinosaur’ and ‘a bit bonkers’. If you have been in the same room as Hunt, as I have, you know that this is nonsense. Hunt is still at top of his intellectual game.

But before Hunt ends up getting the final word. Please Nobel eight, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox and even Boris Johnson. Stop distracting us away from the real issue. Please put your energy and your status into action. Its about sexism in science. Royal Society take heed. Now is the time for radical change and action. Women have had enough!